Why are we sending Classical Music underground?

Adelaide might get a large underground concert hall in the old Royal Adelaide Hospital site, if an audacious proposal currently being considered by the State Government is given the green light.

Pictures just released of the newly announced redevelopment show a mysterious copper-coloured archway entrance on North Terrace, right in front of the old hospital.

It funnels pedestrians down to what is understood would be a 1500-seat concert hall that occupies three lower levels of the hospital’s substructure.

This is one of several sites currently being discussed for a new home for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, the need for which has been gathering momentum in recent months. Anther more logical option would be to colocate it with other flagship performing arts companies (opera, theatre) adjacent to or near the Adelaide Festival Centre – and above ground like concert halls usually are. But at least this new hall would be a short stroll from the proposed new contemporary art gallery, also mooted for the repurposed RAH site.

By not having to construct a new building it could save costs, and it would be a world first if it happened. There is, in Bavaria’s tiny town of Blaibach, a new and ultramodern 200-seat underground concert hall that is just large enough to hold chamber orchestra concerts. Hidden LED illumination inside its concrete and timber lined walls look surprisingly attractive.

Boston has a fabled Romanesque 120-year-old auditorium that is four stories below one of its main streets. Called Steinert Hall and boasting unparalleled acoustics, it was once the fulcrum of that city’s cultural scene and saw recitals by the likes of Rachmaninov and Paderewski. However, it has lain in disrepair since 1942 following fire safety concerns.

Then there is a converted salt mine in Wielicka, Poland, a former quarry in Changyu, China, and a cave 100 metres below ground in Tennessee called the ‘Volcano Room’ where bluegrass bands perform. But for underground concert venues, nothing beats the massive natural amphitheatre in Slovenia’s Postojna Caves in Slovenia: this is occasionally used for concerts and can fit 10,000 people.

Nowhere yet on earth, though, has a hospital basement been transformed into a full-size concert hall. Obviously, it would involve ripping out much of the RAH’s lower floors, installing tiered seating, and constructing foyer and backstage facilities. With a projected audience capacity exactly halfway in between that of the Town Hall and the Festival Theatre, its internal volume would need to be in the vicinity of 30,000 cubic meters to permit a reverberation time of two seconds (which is considered desirable).

Whether there is enough space in the old RAH’s bowels is dubious. But more than that, would it work for audiences? Would anyone want to head down there to hear a symphony concert? A subterranean, windowless chamber might deliver a synthetic and quite oppressive listening experience. It needs great architecture to speak to a city’s cultural aspirations, and as a UNESCO City of Music, Adelaide deserves more than an auditorium buried 15 metres deep.

On the other hand, this new concert hall proposal may not be such a crazy idea. The nearest plan anywhere else is a 1950 seat concert hall due for construction under one of Vancouver’s central plazas. Designed to house the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, which, just like the ASO, has longstanding venue problems, it would be approached via escalators from the lobby of the historic Vancouver Art Gallery. Planners say there will be considerable cost savings from reusing an existing building and eliminating the need for sound or thermal insulation.

Bramwell Tovey, the VSO’s conductor (some will recall he directed the ASO in 1999), is quoted as saying: “I can tell you we’re not looking to build something phallic, we’re looking to build something that’s a wonderful natural acoustical space. And because of that reason we can embrace the underground concept quite easily.”

This Vancouver proposal has stalled, though, as a result of years of delays in relocating the art gallery – which has to happen before any ground is dug. So that would leave Adelaide as going it alone for now in the underground music stakes.

Perhaps it suits. Already we have an Entertainment Centre that feels like a giant characterless basement. And ‘Trenance’, a unique sprawling former Bonython homestead in the Bugle Ranges near Mount Barker, used to hold classical concerts in its extraordinary 240 square meter nuclear bomb shelter.

Except no, this idea is unedifying. A bunker mentality is not for this City of Light. Here is a chance for Australian architects to flex their muscles and create something memorable not another office building, commercial tower or hotel, but a civic building worth celebrating.

Many will lament how the State Government rejected a proposal from the ASO Board in 2011 to commission international architect Frank Gehry to design a concert hall for Adelaide – he created Los Angeles’ stunning Walt Disney Concert Hall with a gleaming skin of curvy metal. A building like that would instantly become one of Adelaide’s foremost cultural destinations.

Another wow building that could raise our sights is Reykjavik’s ultra-modern Harpa Concert Hall, home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Or there’s the incredible arch-shaped Auditorio de Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and Beijing’s recently finished titanium and glass covered ‘Giant Egg’, the National Centre for the Performing Arts. Like the Sydney Opera House, all these buildings make statements about their respective cities and give visibility to their musical culture. A hole in the ground does not.

Classical music being sent underground – yes, it has a certain ring to it. The darkest moments of a Mahler symphony might feel at home down there in the cavernous old RAH. It might also be the perfect venue for Orpheus in the Underworld, or perhaps Bernard Herrmann’s filmscore for Journey to the Centre of the Earth. But let’s just imagine that wonderful moment in Haydn’s Creation when the choir cry out ‘Let there be light!’ and the orchestra lets forth with a blazing C major chord. It would not be the same.

 

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