A STAGE FOR ALL SEASONS
A JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF AN ORCHESTRA PIT…
In my concern to ensure that the concert hall of the beautiful Les Arts Gstaad project will have an orchestra pit for on-stage performances, for dance, for opera, for theatre, I decided to fly to Gstaad after my summer stay in Berlin. The original instructions for the architectural competition had stipulated that there should be ballet on the stage, but that there should not be an orchestra pit; that the sightlines would have to arrange themselves! That would of course mean that one would see the feet of the dancers through the conductor’s waving wand, and past the heads of the orchestral players, and through their instruments, the harps and the double bases...
When Markus Kappeler showed me these instructions during my stay with him and Marlis in the summer of 2009, I immediately remonstrated with him about the inconsistency of planning musical performances on the stage of the concert hall, without providing an orchestra pit, an obviously necessary professional-standard facility. He countered that an orchestra pit would be too expensive! “Too expensive?” When they were planning to build, not a local village hall, but a world class, multi-million Swiss Francs, arts complex, to serve a large area, that would include an art gallery, a safe art depository, and the concert hall - the only one of its kind and scale in the neighbourhood - with a bus station and car parking underneath it all???
In preparation for my journey I contacted various persons concerned in the project, including the architect, Rudy Ricciotti, who said that he would not be in Gstaad, but that I would be welcome to come and see him in Bandol. So I flew to Nice, where Michel Callyannis had kindly arranged for me to stay at the same hotel as two years ago, the Floride, on the 22 bus route into town, up the hill, a bit inland, with a wonderful sunny view over the town and hills from my balcony, the coloured lights at night. And Boris Slioussarenko collected me from the airport. And the next day he drove me to Bandol.
Rudy Ricciotti talked to us about the superb acoustics that the concert hall would have, and expressed his concern, that there was not enough money to continue the architectural work, and that there was not enough money to build the building. And why didn’t one of the wealthy residents of Gstaad simply pay for the lot, and lend his name to the building. I concur with that sentiment. I was relieved that building work had not yet started: I had had no access to information about the progress of the project until I came to Bandol...
We then had a conference with Rudy’s enthusiastic project manager, Rasko Rob, at which I would like to have been shown more detailed plans – on the internet sketches the stage appears rather high for an orchestral podium - but I could see from the plans which I was shown that the hall had no orchestra pit. I pointed this out to Rasko, and he said that there was space underneath it for one to be installed, as there was car parking below the hall at that point which did not require the total height of the ceiling. When I asked him why there was no orchestra pit, he replied that none had been specified by Les Arts Gstaad. So I realised that this crucial facility – crucial, as it is intended to present ballet etc ON THE STAGE! - which I had been pleading for in speech, emails and letters and on my blog for two years now, was still not going to be provided, to my view a disastrous compromise. A house without a water closet. I mentioned that London’s Royal Festival Hall had been built in 1951 simply as a concert hall, with a podium for the orchestra. But it was found necessary to present a long season of ballet in the hall each summer, as musical customers were attending the BBC promenade concerts in the huge Albert Hall. So a make-shift stage for the dancers had to be erected in the Royal Festival Hall each year. With its recent renovation, the hall received a completely new, flexible, stage and orchestra pit, and the chorus seats can now be moved away hydraulically, so as to provide a clear performance area. Rasko stated that no chorus seats were arranged for. This is a double lack, as they can accommodate members of the audience when not needed for a chorus, the audience thus surrounding the orchestra as in a private salon, giving a more intimate ambiance, and providing cheap seats behind the orchestra. Memories of early concert-going to the Proms in the Queen’s Hall...
With my now up to date if, alas, incomplete, information of the concert hall, I flew along the Mediterranean, over the white-tipped Alps, and along the huge Lake Geneva; took the train along the lake to Montreux, and then the little mountain railway up to Gstaad. I wheeled my zipper the few meters to the luxurious small chalet Hotel Christiania, with its welcoming host, in the main street.
I had an appointment for coffee the next day with Frank Mueller-Brand, the editor of the Anzeiger von Saanen, and I fetched him from the office, and we sat in the sun in a cafe, and I put my case. It was a delightful meeting, the outcome of which was for him to say that I needed a ‘Gespraechspartner’ to voice my continuing concerns, somebody with authority within the organisation of Les Arts Gstaad to speak to. He suggested Hans-Ueli Tschanz, Kultur Engagement, who rang me the next day, to say that he was not the right man, but that I must meet Kurt Aellen in Bern, the architect member of the Board of Les Arts Gstaad.
But first I had to keep my appointment in Zuerich with Dr Peter Hagmann, feuilleton-editor of the Neue Zuercher Zeitung. I was out of breath by the time I had given him a resume of my case for an orchestra pit. Then there was a silence. And I thought he was thinking me a fusspot over such a detail as an orchestra pit. But he went much further than me. He quoted other new concert halls in Switzerland, all of which were extremely flexible, and one of which had innumerable squares of floor, that could all be lowered and raised individually, in any configuration so that, for example, the audience could sit in the centre, with the action going on around them. He proposed to pass on my information to his colleague dealing with architecture. I have emailed Peter Hagmann with detailed supportive notes for his colleague: About the missing orchestra pit; about the missing choir stalls; and about the apparently also missing organ; none was mentioned in my talk with the architects.
Concerning the missing windows in the building, I pleaded for daylight in all dressing rooms – with those wondrous views of the valley, the snow-capped mountains - in the green room, and in the canteen, and in the rooms for the technicians, for the orchestra and for the chorus.
Concerning the other missing feature, the restaurant, I learnt that it had been deleted from the original plans in deference to the interests of the nearby hotel restaurants and cafes! A completely wrong decision, to my mind, about which I raised the following six points:
1) That it would be more proper for Les Arts Gstaad to represent the interests of Les Arts Gstaad, and of its public, its artists, and its technicians, rather than representing the interests of nearby hotel restaurants and cafes;
2) that these nearby hotel restaurants and cafes have the opportunity of applying for a licence to run the restaurant;
3) that a restaurant would support the project financially;
4) that, together with the originally planned terrace, the restaurant would encourage the public to visit Les Arts Gstaad;
5) that a restaurant was all the more necessary, as the building had activities for the public all day, as well as in the evenings;
6) and that eating and drinking served a hugely important social function.
The next day I took the same series of trains to Bern, to meet Kurt Aellen, the architect, le maitre d’ouvrage, as Rudy called him. A fantastic meeting. Thrilling. Because it turned out that he thought that the solution of the Royal Festival Hall could solve the problem of the Gstaad hall: Raise the stage one meter. Extend the front of the stage one meter. Remove 5 rows of seats. And, hey presto! you have an orchestra pit, without having to build one. Both a technical, and a financial, solution! Irony has it that I had circulated the full details of the Royal Festival Hall scheme, together with those of Eddy Smith, the Technical Director of the South Bank – the man they should consult! - of the company that designed and installed the new stage, and of the architects overseeing the renovation of the hall to Rudy, to Markus, and to a number of other persons concerned in Les Arts Gstaad, in November 2009, twenty one months ago!
After our meeting Kurt Aellen insisted on driving me to see the wondrous Renzo Piano. Paul Klee. art gallery on the outskirts of Bern, where I had a quick look inside this amazing huge steel and glass ‘conservatory’, built in three curved waves...
I rushed back from Bern to Gstaad for a delayed meeting with Leonz Blunschi, the chairman of the Yehudi Menuhin Festival. I asked him what he expected, hoped for, needed, from the concert hall, pointing out that the Festival was the first known potential customer of the new facilities. But Herr Blunschi refused to answer. The beginning of our conversation was also its end. He said that he was not concerned with technical questions, and stated that, if everybody talked to everybody about the scheme, there would be utter chaos. People should talk only to Markus Kappeler. I was nonplussed. First of all Markus Kappeler was no longer on speaking terms with me, so that that avenue was closed to me. Then I wasn’t “everybody”. I had a very particular involvement in the project; and where did freedom of speech come in? After sleeping on this extraordinary interview I emailed Herr Blunschi, and suggested to him that he appeared to have erected a fascist image of the structure of Les Arts Gstaad, and to have attributed to Markus the role of dictator, a notion less than palatable to me, with my personal experience of Germany 1933! In his reply Herr Blunschi countered my definition by describing what they had set up in Les Arts Gstaad as a “klare Organisations- und Entscheid-Kultur”, literally a clear organizational and decision culture”. I accepted Herr Blunschi’s definition, but said that I still found that conversation, that discussion, with whomever, and between whomever, about what was, after all, a public project, and not some private person’s venture or company, should not only be permitted, but should be actively encouraged.
And, further, that I was in the unique position of having been the actual person to propose to Markus to take on this project which became Les Arts Gstaad, and that I should therefore be all the more permitted to participate in the discussion. I had been introduced to the subject some 25 years ago by my architect friends in Berlin. It was the student project of Wieka Muthesius, of a concert hall inside a mountain in Gstaad, which was set by her professor, later her husband, Alfred Grazioli. That extraordinary image has been with me for a quarter of a century.
While I was in Gstaad I should very much like to have been given the opportunity of meeting the Artistic Director of the Menuhin Festival, Christoph Mueller, particularly as I, too, have directed a number of British arts festivals, and have been involved in concert promotion, and theatre and opera production and direction. I would like to have been able to talk to him about these professional practicalities, that appear to have been neglected in this visually exquisite building.