Cutbacks Special: Who Listens to the Auditoria?

‘World-class’ is a descriptor that is bandied about with blithe disregard for proportion these days, whatever the subject. But there is an auditorium in Cardiff which unites audiences, composers, performers, critics, architects and acousticians in agreement as being within the world’s top ten for quality of sound – and that is St David’s Hall. The venue’s modernist facade, squashed awkwardly within a tired concrete and glass shopping mall, might not be to everybody’s taste – and the dated interior decor and facilities make ‘tatty’ and ‘inadequate’ seem like compliments respectively. But it is the sheer, timeless excellence of the acoustic which makes this concert hall amongst the best of the best anywhere in the world.

Designated the ‘National Concert Hall of Wales’ upon its official opening to the public in 1983, St David’s Hall represents more than sonic treasure for a generation of concert-goers. Shockingly though, like Cardiff’s historic New Theatre – and in keeping with many brilliant and successful arts and theatre companies, venues and museum programmes across the capital – the future of the Hall is in jeopardy. With reverberations echoing far beyond the city itself, the Labour-run Cardiff City Council, which owns the Hall, is seeking to privatise the running of both it and the New Theatre – possibly to sell them off altogether. In total, the Council have approved budget cuts of over £50 million for 2014-15 and, whether or not the venues are sold, the axe is swinging across the arts and services for young people and the vulnerable as if in some bizarre, Tory-directed slasher movie. Sadly, the damage will be all too real to Cardiff’s arts and social infrastructure, and to the city’s reputation as a centre for the arts, if this desperate, short-termist programme goes ahead.

There are many who can write far more eloquently and knowledgeably about the position regarding theatre than I, and who are doing so elsewhere in this edition of the Wales Arts Review. Suffice it to say that the news that Sherman Cymru (not ‘just’ a theatre company / venue either, by the way, but an excellent – and commissioning – cross-arts resource embracing ballet, music theatre and more) stands to lose its entire £160,000-plus funding is scandalous.

But I do know that, in musical terms, St David’s Hall is also a vital resource – not to mention an historic one – which lies at the centre of a proud tradition of music-making that signifies Wales’ right to a seat at the top table of international culture. It is the spiritual – if not the actual – home these days, of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and it continues to host a plethora of top orchestras, conductors and soloists from around the world – not to mention an increasing number of iconic rock and pop musicians from Steve Vai to Billy Bragg – who are all drawn by that fine acoustic, to the only purpose-built concert hall in Wales. If anything, the programme at St David’s Hall needs redoubling in pioneering spirit, and to be promoted harder and better; certainly not to be compromised or – God forbid – ended by the venue’s being sold off to a developer. If that were to happen, it would amount to an act of unforgivable cultural vandalism which would undoubtedly affect Wales’ standing as a musical nation.

Last week, I spoke about the situation with the Arts and Theatre Manager for Cardiff Council, Roger Hopwood, and he was very keen to stress that no decision has yet been made regarding St David’s Hall or the New Theatre beyond budgetary cuts; that the Council are currently ‘looking for alternative operators’ and ‘working to examine all the options’, and that this ‘does not mean “sell” at this particular moment’. He stated that a report on all the options will be available for discussion early in the new financial year, and that the Council will make a decision from there. At this stage, then, Hopwood was unable to give me any assurances that the BBC NOW will be able to continue in its current role as Orchestra in Residence at St David’s Hall. Moreover, the sheer scale of the cuts already agreed by the Council, and statements on record by Councillor Russell Goodway, the Council’s finance cabinet member and architect of the 2014-15 budget, hardly give grounds for optimism that the forthcoming report will focus on what’s best for the arts or the people of Cardiff:

‘We are trying to find an outside provider who would be prepared to take the venues over. I am more optimistic about finding a company to take on the New Theatre than I am about St David’s Hall. We are talking to Live Nation, the firm that runs the Motorpoint Arena, about the possibility of their taking on the New Theatre. We are also talking to the Wales Millennium Centre about the possibility of taking on the shows currently put on in St David’s Hall. What’s important is bringing people into the city to see the shows, rather than the buildings they see them in.’

Let us unpack this statement a little. Of course, the WMC is in Cardiff Bay, not the city centre – and already has its own full schedule of events. But, quite apart from that, the last sentence in particular seems staggeringly cavalier towards the different venues and their respective capacities and artistic remits, and is wholly dismissive of (not to mention ignorant about) the importance of venues in themselves. After all, such buildings carry an historic, communal and architectural meaning above and beyond the programme of shows they present.

Moreover, concerts that are suitable for St David’s Hall are by no means necessarily transferable to the auditoria at WMC. St David’s Hall is a 2,000 seat purpose-built concert auditorium (not a 1,500-seater, as an October 2011 update of a 2004 report commissioned by Cardiff from Right Solution Ltd into a proposed conference centre erroneously states), whereas the WMC’s BBC Hoddinott Hall, for instance, is far smaller. When the BBC NOW moved into its new home there in 2009, it was primarily intended to facilitate rehearsing, recording and outreach work.

Indeed, the BBC NOW describes Hoddinott Hall as ‘primarily a rehearsal and recording studio, but [which] also provides the opportunity to give concerts to audiences of around 350.’ Clearly, Hoddinott Hall is neither large enough, nor has the right acoustic environment, to host either BBC NOW’s, or any other full-sized orchestra’s, concerts of classic orchestral repertoire – nor was it ever designed to do so. Such concerts continue to attract substantial live audiences at St David’s Hall and, in the case of BBC NOW, further audiences across the UK and beyond through broadcast by BBC Radio 3. In addition, the venue is one of the most televised in the UK thanks to such events as the bi-annual BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, which brings global attention to the city via various media platforms, in addition to the live audience the competition attracts from around the world.

Nor would WMC’s Donald Gordon Theatre be a substitute for St David’s Hall. The Donald Gordon might seat a comparative 1900-odd to St David’s 2,000, but, as its name suggests, it is a theatre; clearly designed for stage shows and opera rather than orchestral and small ensemble concerts, or the kind of rock, pop and jazz gigs at which St David’s Hall excels. Otherwise, why should the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera choose to perform its regular, season-opening concerts at St David’s Hall, as it continues to do, rather than at the WMC?

Surely the only likely benefactor of a threat to St David’s Hall would be the rival venue Colston Hall in Bristol (2057 seats) which – in contrast to St David’s – has had the benefit of a substantial makeover in recent years. Of course, in classical music terms, Bristol has long been touted as a possible re-siting for one of the many orchestras currently based in London, as arts managers look to address the problems of London-centric UK cultural provision. How would we in Wales answer this potential competition for the south Wales audience, say – irrespective of budget cuts and threats to our major arts venues in Cardiff?

In any case, the question remains, how far has this council budget been rushed through without proper scrutiny? There are letters on public record from members of the Economy and Culture Scrutiny Committee (February 10), which have voiced concerns to the Cabinet, that ‘… the timescale allocated to the current Budget Process no longer appear[s] fit for purpose … Members of this Council received the budget proposals two working days before our papers were due to be dispatched and the time period has denied us the opportunity to conduct independent research, or properly identify appropriate external witnesses to provide a counterpoint for the evidence provided at meetings by officers and Cabinet Members … there is a risk of Scrutiny Councillors having to take information provided on budget savings “on trust” without being able to reach their own empirical judgements.’

This is hardly the way to decide any budget, let alone make decisions about such sweeping, devastating cuts. But ‘take it on trust’ the Council has done, as the budget, including the proposed ‘savings’ was approved to go ahead in late February, despite these and other objections to the budget’s unduly complicated presentation.

Surely, we all know from personal experience that this is a ‘time of austerity’, to quote the usual phrase, and that cuts in public services were bound to continue biting ever deeper across the board. But, just to restate a long-established truism about public investment in the arts, Welsh National Opera (for instance) estimates that, in terms of financial generation alone, the company brings five times the amount of money into the local economy than the Arts Council of Wales provides to them in grants: not just financially, but artistically and socially, a grant is far from being a ‘gift’ or ‘handout’, but an investment with very real returns.

But then Cardiff City Council are eager it seems, to make new investments – and are now at the procurement stage – in a very different, corporate direction. The report by Right Solution Ltd to which I allude above is a manifestation of the Council’s ambition to build a new conference centre and ‘multi-purpose venue’ in the heart of the city as part of an enormous growth plan encompassing new housing, roads and other infrastructure. According to a Cabinet report of January 2014, ‘the Multi-Purpose Arena project is a long standing Council priority and is widely regarded as the next major infrastructure investment required to support Cardiff’s development into one of Europe’s most “liveable” capital cities. The project involves the delivery of a circa 12,000 seat Indoor Arena, a circa 1500 seat conference auditoria, meeting rooms and circa 8000 sq m of exhibition space to enable the full range of international conferences and business events and premium entertainment and sporting events to be delivered in Cardiff.’

All well and good perhaps, except that – quite apart from any other objection – there is no mention here of any specific concert auditoria along, say, the St David’s Hall lines; a very different beast, I would suggest, from the kind of large-scale arena or conference auditorium that the Right Solution report describes (the latter with an emphasis on moveable floors and seating arrangements, and the provision of ‘banqueting and breakout’ facilities, but no mention of acoustic properties). Corporate-oriented yes, arts-oriented no. Effectively sidelining artistic considerations in this proposed venue is shortsighted, not to mention philistine – and just plain ignoring of the everyday needs of Cardiff citizens.

For what does it mean to make a capital city ‘liveable’? There is no specific mention of the arts at all beyond a tiny paragraph in a very lengthy and substantial report that briefly cites ‘shopping and entertainment’ in Cardiff as part of the potential draw for prospective conference clients. You would never know from this document – nor from any of the official literature surrounding the conference centre project – that Cardiff and wider Wales are currently experiencing a golden age of arts innovation, achievement and opportunity. If this proposed ‘multi-purpose venue’ goes ahead, but turns out to mirror the bland, grey desert of the Cardiff Bay residential developments as many people fear it will, then I worry indeed for the city’s cultural and community soul.

Interestingly, the Council does acknowledge its corporate competition; indeed, the Council cites this as a reason for pressing ahead with the conference centre project. For both Newport and Bristol are also looking to build conference centre/arena facilities along the very lines that Cardiff proposes (a ‘Wales International Conference Centre’ at Sir Terry Matthew’s Celtic Manor Resort, and a £91 million proposal backed by the Bristol City Mayor for the Temple Meads development site respectively). But what guarantee is there that Cardiff Council does indeed have the ‘sufficiently strong basis’ that Director of Economic Development Neil Hanratty insists that it has to pour money into such a venture, in direct competition with these other cities – particularly in light of the Council’s apparent determination to jeopardise one of the very assets Cardiff has to offer: namely a diverse and thriving arts scene befitting a (so-called) capital city? Please pardon the pun, but if Cardiff Council is unable to capitalise on the fantastic arts venues and providers already existing in prime locations in or near to the city centre, then this surely does not bode well for their marketing and management of any future cultural project.

Returning to grassroots level and to music, just over a year ago, Cardiff Council took the musically and socially disastrous step of cutting provision for peripatetic instrumental tuition for school pupils; instead, delegating the £173,000 Music Development Fund (which ensures access for disadvantaged areas) to schools and raising tuition fees 11%. Not surprisingly, in January 2014, the Cardiff County and Vale of Glamorgan Music Service revealed that there has already been a 10% drop in take-up for instrumental lessons and that 100 fewer children are now attending the county’s twenty-four music ensembles.

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves not only ‘who listens to the auditoria?’, but ‘what price politics in the “land of song”?’ For it seems – given the Council’s determination to invest in a major new conference/big entertainment hub – that it is political will as much as public money which is at issue here. Either way, it is not just Cardiffians who now stand to lose large swathes of precious artistic resource and cultural heritage, but the people of Wales and beyond – and with immediate, devastating effect. Irrespective of any proposed sale of venues, the repercussions will stretch far into the future indeed.

Illustration by Dean Lewis