Hole in the wall
13 February 2009
NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS. The long awaited full restoration of London’s Royal Festival Hall organ is no nearer completion than when the hall was re-opened to the public in June 2007, writes Peter Gillman. Southbank Centre (SBC) told Choir & Organ it was ‘in discussion with potential donors’ to raise the costs of the outstanding restoration work, estimated at between £1.5m and £2.3m’. But the centre added: ‘We do not yet have a funding commitment’ and was unable to say when the work would be started.
Mark Venning, managing director of Harrison & Harrison, considers the lack of progress ‘disappointing and frustrating for all concerned’. The firm was awarded the contract in 2004 and restored one third of the organ in time for the re-opening. The work was complicated by the need to reduce the size of the organ chamber by one metre in order to fit the new Festival Hall stage – ‘a very interesting challenge,’ said Venning.
Although early discussions over the contract concerned the entire organ, the final version specified that only one third of the work should be undertaken. SBC said this was because the full restoration costs had not been included in the budget for the Festival Hall’s refurbishment, initially set at £91m. English Heritage has confirmed that the organ is part of the building’s Grade I listing; Simon Hickman, historic buildings and area advisor, told C&O that ‘the organ contributes to the special interest of the Festival Hall.’
Harrisons began the restoration work in 2005 and completed it in time for the re-opening. But only 38 out of the specified 103 stops were in use, with just two of the pedal stops. The result, said Venning, is that audiences ‘don’t get anything like a proper picture of what an organ can do.’ The partial organ, as it is termed, has been played during some orchestral pieces but there have been no solo recitals on it since the closure.
At the time of the re-opening in June 2007, an SBC press release said that ‘although part of the organ’ was back in place, the remaining installation was ‘being phased over the next four years’ – thus extending the completion date to 2011.
Last summer, in response to enquiries from C&O, the centre, citing ‘recent uncertainty surrounding our funding position’, said it had been ‘unfortunately unable to instruct’ Harrison & Harrison to restart the restoration work. It added that it was ‘focusing on the organ as one of our fundraising priorities’ and that it hoped to set ‘a new timetable as soon as possible’. In January this year, following further enquiries from C&O, SBC issued a short statement couched in almost identical terms:
‘Southbank Centre is committed to the completion of the organ. It is one of our fundraising priorities and we are currently in discussion with potential funders. Following discussions with the new Chief Executive, we hope to confirm a new timetable for the reinstallation of the instrument as soon as possible.’
Asked for clarification, SBC said that Alan Bishop, due to become chief executive on 5 February, was ‘aware of the issue’ which ‘will be addressed as an organisational priority when he takes up his post, within the context of other organisational priorities’. SBC also revealed that it was ‘currently in discussion with a major funder’ about sponsoring the outstanding work. It added: ‘We’re happy to take money from anyone who will support us’, and donors would receive ‘appropriate recognition’. Asked about a timetable, the centre repeated the mantra: ‘We hope to restore the organ as soon as possible,’ adding: ‘This won’t be before 2011 as previously stated.’
Venning estimated that it would take Harrison & Harrison two years to complete the restoration work once it received the go-ahead. He said: ‘It is very disappointing that there is no further news on when we might be able to restart work on the organ. The situation is very frustrating for all concerned.’ He added: ‘It is very sad that only part of the organ in the hall is playable – it is visually strange and musically limited. There is a yawning gap where the rest of the organ is supposed to be and it looks most peculiar.’
The organ world is likely to share Mr Venning’s disappointment. The Festival Hall organ, once seen as revolutionary and to some extent controversial, is now viewed as an iconic instrument.
The outstanding two thirds of the organ are currently in store in a warehouse in Durham. ‘It is in one hundred thousand pieces,’ said Venning. He added the reassurance that ‘it has been stored in a very tidy manner, waiting for the resurrection.’