Hall of Harmony Beside the Lake
by Andrew Clark (excerpts) / The
Financial Times (September 14, 1998)
Seen from across the lake, Lucernes Cultural
and Congress Centre merges imperceptibly with the city skyline.
Only close up do you notice the enormous overhang of the roof, the
traffic-free waterfront location and the sense of an outsize music-box
waiting to be entered and explored. Jean Nouvels latest grand
project is neither architectural conceit nor functional monstrosity,
but a happy marriage of artistic ideals and practical imperatives.
Surrounded by Alpine views, it has just about
the most spectacular setting of all the worlds major concert
halls, and Nouvel responds with unusual restraint: his building
harmonises with, rather than dominates, its surroundings. But the
real miracle lies within, intangible and invisible. The acoustic
engineered by Russell Johnson easily matches the wonders of Birminghams
Symphony Hall, on which Johnson worked so profitably a decade ago.
The difference is that Lucernes new hall is more elegant and
You might wonder what this architectural-acoustical
jewel is doing in a Swiss city of only 60,000 people. Shut off from
the musical mainstream for most of the year, Lucerne has yet to
answer the question satisfactorily: the programme for the winter
months consists mainly of bargain-basement imports and small scale
The halls raison detre is the Lucerne
music festival, a star-studded event which has long outgrown its
previous venue. The only way the festival could get a new building
was to tie it to the citys ambitions as a tourist and conference
centre. And in a country where every major public spending initiative
needs local endorsement at the ballot box, that meant proving to
the widest range of interest groups, from hoteliers to yodelling
clubs, that they had a stake in the building.
The result is a Sfr205m (£87m) venue of which everyone can
be proud. The art museum, conference hall and two flexible smaller
halls will not open until next year; but the concert hall, inaugurated
last month to coincide with the festivals 60th anniversary,
has already established itself as worthy of the worlds leading
All are housed behind a facade of glass, steel-mesh
and aluminum, and sheltered by a vast pagoda-like canopy - the buildings
only concession to monumentalism. Reaching unsupported for 30 meters
towards the waterside, the canopy not only offers shelter from the
elements, but harmonises the building with the horizontal expanse
of the lake. It invites you to spend the intervals outside - for
which purpose a long, open-fronted bar has been furnished.
Thats just as well, because Nouvel doesnt seem to want
anyone to linger en route to or from the concert hall. Shielded
by the canopy, the buildings open-fronted balconies are denied
the prospect of mountains and sky, and the tiny foyers are almost
as darkly idiosyncratic as Nouvels opera house at Lyons, with
horrifyingly low ceilings, narrow corridors and conspiratorial spotlights.
The impact in Lucerne is leavened by the rosewood decor, as if youre
skirting the base of a mammoth stringed instrument or the bowels
of a ship.
Once inside the moulded shoebox auditorium, all
is sweetness and light. Its a bit like a private temple to
music, with plaster walls, wooden organ gallery and a night-sky
ceiling of unparalleled height. Its pristine comfort masks a litany
of horse-trading during the building process. Nouvel wanted smooth
walls; Johnson insisted on reflective devices - and the compromise
is an attractive surface of indented reliefs. Nouvel wanted red
and blue decor; Claudio Abbado, representing musicians closely associated
with the festival, demanded something milder, and the result is
a soft white. Nouvel objected to Johnsons trademark echo-chambers;
to his credit he backed down, painting them an infernal red.
The 1,840 capacity (420 less than Birmingham)
is Johnsons ideal - a bit small for an international festival,
but unlike Baden-Badens ill-fated new theatre, not so big
that it will embarrass its users in the off-season. There are four
slim balconies and a smattering of Oregon pine around the stage.
As for sound quality, you dont get much more truthful than
this. It is transparent, gently resonant and quite unforgiving,
but with the same balance wherever you sit. Musicians clearly love
it - and so do audiences, buoyed by the close contact with the stage.
The 20th century has not, on the whole, been renowned for its success
in concert hall design. In Lucernes new venue, we can draw
compensation from all those failed adventures. It is a meeting point
of art and science, the avant-garde and tradition - a building music
lovers will want to return to again and again.
For his seventh and final year as festival intendant,
Matthias Bamert put together an appropriately lavish programme -
a festival of festivals, with contributions from Bayreuth,
Salzburg and the London Proms, plus the usual glittering array of
orchestras and soloists. These were augmented by a downmarket series
of events aimed at the wider Lucerne public - who, before Bamert
started loosening the festivals boundaries, felt marginalised
by the festivals expensive image. Countering that feeling,
without compromising standards, has been one of Bamerts achievements,
and he hands over an organization in rude health to 37-year old
Michael Haefliger, currently manager of the Davos festival.
Another hallmark of Bamerts work in Lucerne
has been his promotion of contemporary music. The choice of Heinz
Holliger as this years composer-in-residence helped to mitigate
the absence of a commissioned work to inaugurate the new hall. Holliger
is Switzerlands musical conscience - virtuosic, slightly eccentric,
defying the predictable or conventional - and his music reflects
those qualities. The centerpiece of Lucernes Holliger retrospective
was a concert in which he conducted the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
in works ranging from his first published orchestral essay to his
recent Violin Concerto.
Tonscherben (1985) - 15 minutes of sonic fragments,
ingeniously musicked - showcased the demonstration quality of the
halls acoustic, as well as making a smashing concert-opener.
But Holliger is more than just an expert manipulator of sound. Cornelia
Kallischs rendition of five songs (1960/1993) inspired by
poems of Georg Trakl underlined his gift for exploring the inner
world of the psyche.