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After much contemplation I have decided that I should circulate my view of developments at Watford Town Hall / Colosseum. I regard it as England's finest concert hall and over a period of nearly twenty years have devoted a great deal of personal effort and most of Classic Concerts Trust's resources in attempting to reverse the process of neglect and poor management on the part of Watford Borough Council which have caused its musical reputation and value to suffer.
Unfortunately, now the hall is about to re-open after long-overdue renovation work it is becoming clear that the fears I expressed when the plans for renovation and management were generated seem to have been fairly well on the mark: after a significant capital investment by Watford Borough Council and a considerable increase in operational subsidy to a private (i.e.for-profit) management company, it appears that the 2011/12 season will be one of what I suspect to be relatively few in the history of the hall to be distinguished by the absence of a subscription season of professional orchestral concerts. The hall Director's comment in this regard was: "Our contract with WBC does not stipulate that a specific number of orchestral concerts should be presented per annum. As you are fully aware, few orchestras are prepared to take the financial risks themselves (even though, like us, they receive public funding) and so we are working with promoters to present orchestral concerts on a shared risk basis. Where possible, we are trying to present a balanced programme, which includes orchestral concerts." I think this can be reasonably interpreted as meaning that not only that no provision has been made for a subscription series of professional orchestral concerts but, given the current financial situation, that there is no likelihood of any arising at some later stage.
Concerning the hall itself, perhaps the final result will be better than the artist's impressions on the hall website, but in my view the changes are entirely unsympathetic both to the aesthetics of the architecture and for serious musical performance. The decoration is reminiscent of a 1970s provincial cinema rather than a concert hall of world class and, worse still, includes new retractable tiered seating without provision of the chairs needed to enable a flat floor alternative at full capacity (i.e. with the tier retracted).
The acoustic report we commissioned in 2008 (and which was circulated throughout the council on completion and later to HQ Theatres who now manage the hall) makes clear the dangers of adding tiered seating. In response to my concern the Director commented: "The impact of the tiered seating on the acoustics will not have a noticeable effect on the acoustics. The difference MAY be noticeable on a machine that measures nanoseconds, but I really don’t feel that it will be noticeable by the average concert-goer. However, there is a very simple solution: we can retract the seating and put out 700 chairs on the flat floor, which, with the 450 seats in the circle, gives a very adequate capacity of 1150 seats [this equates to roughly a 25% reduction on the hall's original capacity]. With a stage extension, this gives you a provision for a full flat floor seating layout. Problem solved!"
My answer was: I am simply stunned by your response. This is one of the finest halls in the world for orchestral performance and the reason it is beloved by musicians and the public alike is because acoustics of such quality are vital – and incredibly rare. I contend that what you so patronisingly refer to as an “average concertgoer” would understand perfectly well that what is being done to the auditorium is akin to painting a violin by Stradivarius purple; an act which would spoil its sound as well as its visual beauty and one that would constitute an act of desecration of one of mankind’s finest achievements, an activity which should be actively prevented by those – such as the council – holding positions of trust. I may be wrong but suspect you are going to discover that people understand all too well the brilliance of this hall, and will be extremely disappointed that you clearly do not."
The cavalier attitude which seems to have been taken concerning the addition of tiered seating also leads one to wonder about the quality of acoustic advice which has been sought and the precise brief which was given, since every element of building detail can impact on musical quality. I have asked for further information in this regard and of course will distribute anything interesting which subsequently appears in the way of clear evidence concerning the attention which has been paid to maintaining the musical integrity of the hall.
To summarise, my view is that through misguided renovation and a business model which not only fails to exploit the exceptional value and potential of the building as a musical instrument but also acts positively against this ever happening, the council has not only used its resources inefficiently and unwisely but perpetrated an act of appalling cultural vandalism. The irrelevant personal abuse I received this week from the elected Mayor, Dorothy Thornhill, when I started to pursue these matters would only appear to indicate that she is well aware that it may now transpire that her earlier statements will prove to have been lacking any real meaning or intention.
That such a position can have been allowed to arise in respect of a great concert hall, one of historical musical significance and huge future musical potential, is simply shameful. It reflects poorly upon the Arts Council, of which both regional and national officers flatly refused to take an interest, upon English Heritage, which never answered phone calls or emails about the renovation work, upon the BBC, which is using public money to support this operation when it could presumably have taken the stance that its privileged trading position means it should only engage with charitable or public authority operation of the hall, and most of all upon Watford Borough Council and the elected Mayor in particular, since she was warned at every stage of the likely outcomes of the decisions over which she presided.
The fact remains that, whatever has been done to it, the Town Hall / Colosseum will probably remain the best hall for miles for the purpose of orchestral concerts and I am aware that there is a body of opinion to the effect that, however undesirable the changes, we should attempt to work with the new regime. My reason for not doing so is that, even if the beauty and musical quality of the auditorium had not been compromised, the for-profit business model creates irreconcilable conflicts of interest as well as making concert promotion unfeasibly expensive. To put it simply, there is not the slightest realistic possibility of generating a sustainable and developing programme of high quality artistic work. It is distressing to abandon this musical jewel, one from which I gained so much knowledge, insight, inspiration and pleasure for so long, but I can now see no alternative other than to walk away.
There are plenty of people who believe as I do that managing arts venues for profit will become an increasingly untenable as well as an unworkable solution, and who are in equally little doubt that this particular manifestation of this blight will be temporary - just as proved to be the case the last time it was tried. My policy will therefore be to continue to try to provide concerts in the area for those who wish to keep the faith until better times arrive. These will be smaller in scale but aiming to generate exactly the same levels of pleasure and inspiration as we all found at the Town Hall / Colosseum before and featuring artists known to our audiences from our work there.
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