Hall’s well that ends well

TAKE YOUR SEAT: Laura Wood, deputy general manager of Bradford Theatres, which runs St George's Hall.
TAKE YOUR SEAT: Laura Wood, deputy general manager of Bradford Theatres, which runs St George's Hall.
  • With a longer history than the Proms, Stephen McClarence looks back at 150 years of classical concerts at Bradford’s 
St George’s Hall. Pictures by Bruce Rollinson.
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Victorian concert-goers in Bradford had more on their minds than just music. “In consequence of numerous complaints,” the programmes for St George’s Hall concerts declared in 1898, “the Committee request that in future, ladies will oblige by either removing their hats, or wearing such as will not interfere with the view of those sitting behind them.”

It’s not something that generally worries modern audiences at the hall, where the new Bradford International Orchestral Concert Season is launched tonight. It celebrates a remarkable anniversary. Orchestral concerts have been staged at St George’s, with its forest of stone pillars, for 150 years, which makes the concert series – once less glamorously called the Bradford Subscription Concerts – a good 30 years older than the Proms.

On November 24, 1865, when the first concert included Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the composer had been dead for less than 40 years. Tchaikovsky was still a young man, Elgar was eight, Mahler was five, and Bradford-born Frederick Delius was just three (and his wool-merchant father Julius was on the concerts committee).

The orchestra was “Mr Charles Hallé’s Full Band” and what would later become the Hallé Orchestra has been a mainstay of the concerts ever since. “It is always a pleasure to return to Bradford with its wonderful hall,” says Sir Mark Elder, the Hallé’s current music director, who has inspired the orchestra to rival its glory days under Sir John Barbirolli.

Ironically this 150th season is a truncated affair, with just four concerts instead of the usual seven. “We’re not making a big splash about it,” says Laura Wood, deputy general manager of Bradford Theatres, the umbrella organisation for St George’s, the Alhambra Theatre and other venues. The hall, she explains, will close for a year in March for essential repairs including re-roofing and rewiring – plus, it’s hoped, an extensive refurbishment, if a £1.3m Heritage Lottery Fund bid is successful. The plan is to reopen in April or May 2017.

Even as it stands, St George’s, which also stages rock concerts, comedy and much else, is an impressive place. Laura leads the way through a labyrinth of backstage corridors and we emerge on the deep, broad stage, dominated by a (sadly no-longer-playable) organ.

The shoebox-shaped auditorium stretches out in front of us – stalls, circle, lofty balcony, swirly pink plasterwork, crimson seats. It was opened by Queen Victoria in 1853 and the following year, Charles Dickens was here to give his first public reading from his newly-published Bleak House.

It has a capacity of 1,670, though it was built to seat 3,500, and sometimes 5,000 could be crammed in. As Laura says: “Health and safety wasn’t as advanced then as it is now.”

The hall is renowned for its “golden acoustic... wonderful to sing in”, as soprano Lesley Garrett describes it. Rita Stott, stage door keeper for more than 20 years, echoes her words: “The musicians are always complimentary about the acoustic.”

Rita meets and greets them, handles autograph hunters who congregate outside after concerts and shows, and sometimes presents bouquets to conductors and soloists on stage. I press her for gossip about rude or temperamental performers, but she is the soul of discretion and reckons “99.9 per cent of people are lovely... I always think that if you’re nice to people, they can only return the courtesy.”

Back to the hall’s acoustic. John Hardy, a regular subscriber to the Bradford concert series for more than 30 years, offers a dissection of it worthy of his former career as a biology teacher. “Performers like the acoustic because it has such clarity; it’s very good for Mozart and Haydn,” he says. “It’s a drier acoustic, compared with Leeds Town Hall, which has a more spacious sound.”

He draws another comparison between the Leeds hall, where he has been attending concerts since the late 1950s, and St George’s. “On the whole Leeds audiences tend to be more vociferous in their reception of performances. Bradford ones tend to be more restrained – though still enthusiastic.”

West Yorkshire concert-goers will have an interesting opportunity to judge the difference this season. The Dresden Philharmonic, who were in Leeds last weekend, are in Bradford tonight, playing the same symphony (Beethoven’s Eroica); while the Prague Symphony Orchestra, due in Bradford on November 21, will be in Leeds the following Saturday, with different conductors, though with the same soloist (Chloe Hanslip) playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

In Bradford as elsewhere, Beethoven has always been good box-office, but a browse through the archives reveals performances of plenty of now-long-forgotten works. Everyman, an oratorio by Walford Davies and Parry’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin (paired in the 1907-8 season) have hardly stood the test of time. The Introduction and Passacaglia by T Tertius Noble, an Edwardian organist at York Minster, has slipped the communal musical memory since Barbirolli programmed it in 1944. Over the years the concerts have featured many of the very greatest musicians: such pianists as Busoni, Cortot, Solomon and Myra Hess; such singers as Adelina Patti, Clara Butt and Walter Widdop, the great tenor born at Norland, near Halifax.

Conductors have been of the calibre of Hans Richter, Sir Thomas Beecham and Russian-born Albert Coates, one of the most dynamic Wagnerians, back on family territory as the St Petersburg-born son of a Bradford wool merchant. Intriguingly, Elgar conducted Berlioz’s Te Deum here in 1915.

Just as remarkable is the number of then-new or difficult works that were programmed. Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra featured in the 1903-04 season, just a few years after its premiere; Barbirolli conducted Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto, a work far from his regular repertoire and hardly guaranteed to send the audience home whistling happy tunes.

Such novelties would be programmed more nervously these days. The challenge in Bradford, as with all classical concert seasons, is ageing audiences and the need to encourage younger ticket-buyers.

“Many young people find classical music forbidding nowadays; they may not be exposed to it at school as they used to be, so they think it’s not for them,” says John Hardy. “You see the same people at the concerts over the years. Quite a few get together in the interval and talk about the performance.”

It’s like a club, says Laura Wood. “There’s a core audience who are very knowledgeable about classical music and sit in the same seats every year. The majority of our audience is over 50, there’s quite a large contingent who are over 60, even over 70. Our target audience is empty-nesters, looking for something new to experience. We want our concerts to be accessible.”

Bradford offers lower-priced tickets to attract younger people, and popular programmes can bring in new audiences. But surely many regulars may feel less inclined to turn out to hear a work that’s already extremely familiar to them from CDs?

“The experience of listening to a record and being in the hall is so different,” says Laura.“I was blown away when I first came to these concerts and realised how much there was to see. You can watch how the conductor brings everything together.”

John Hardy agrees: “It’s always better to listen to music in the company of other people. If you get a good audience, the players respond to it and the enthusiasm is infectious.”

Over at the stage door, Rita Stott can sense that enthusiasm. She often listens to concerts through relay speakers. “Some of them can be very calming,” she says. “It can be... well, music to the ears.”

As for the ladies at Victorian concerts, the 1899 programme noted: “The Committee remark with pleasure that their request as to the removal of hats by ladies occupying seats... has been very extensively complied with.”

So there was no trouble at t’milliners.

• With thanks to the helpful and efficient staff at West Yorkshire Archive Service’s Bradford office.