Milton Court opens in London

Helen Wallace welcomes a new addition to London's concert hall scene

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Make no mistake, in Milton Court London has a hall to rival the finest anywhere in the world.  Seating 608. it was officially opened last night in an acoustic road-test concert by the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner. Built in partnership with developer Heron International (whose looming 36-floor residential tower 'The Heron' adjoins it) and contractors MacAlpine, with acoustics by Arup, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama has created not just an important hall, but a gem of a theatre, alongside an array of state-of-the-art rehearsal spaces for the institution.

Julian Philips confounded expectations with his inaugural commission Come forth to Play: ditching a celebratory fanfare, he gradually piled up five harmonic series until the walls throbbed with clashing overtones. With brass players arrayed around the gallery, it was a neat way of focusing the ears on the hall rather than the musicians. Two Guildhall alumni graced the programme: soprano Sally Matthews, who displayed her fabulous, liquescent top in two Mozart concert arias, and trumpet player Alison Balsom, whose stylish Haydn Concerto dazzled in a near-ideal acoustic.

The Guildhall’s orchestra failed to match her crisp articulation in the Haydn, but roused themselves for Elgar’s Cockaigne, in a resplendent performance of infectious brio which threatened to overwhelm what is, after all, a small hall. The lack of detail experienced in the Haydn was replaced with a clearer picture, and, naturally, a better focus than will ever be found in the Barbican’s wide auditorium. In comparison to the cool and crystalline Hall One over at Kings Place, Milton Court feels less spacious, but warmer, ruddier and more immersive.

While the hall, along with a new 227-seat theatre and studio theatre, belongs to the GSMD, whose own programme of student and professional performance is impressive, the Barbican’s programme will now start to spill across Silk Street for around 45 public concerts a year in the space. The prospects are enticing: Paul Lewis playing Mozart with the Britten Sinfonia (11 October), Alina Ibragamovic and the Academy of Ancient Music (24 October), Tom Adès and Louise Hopkins performing his Lieux retrouvés (5 November), Anne Sofie von Otter singing french chansons (23 November) and Mark Padmore performing Britten’s Serenade (24 November). With a ready-made audience coming from the Barbican, tickets may be hard to come by.

The entire building has cost £89m, £75.5 of which came from the City of London and Heron International, supported by the Higher Education Funding Council, £10.1 of which has been raised by the Campaign for Milton Court, who are still working on raising the last £3.5m. During five years of recession the capital has spawned two excellent new halls, both born from a marriage between arts and business, one commercial, one residential. But as Professor Barry Ife reminded us in his opening speech, a ‘triple helix’ is what’s needed in these projects: without the input of government in both arts and grass-roots education, you’d have world-class stages without world-class performances or an audience who cares to listen.

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