A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Places and Spaces I


I just finished researching and writing a piece for Gramophone about the new Melbourne Recital Centre. I say new, but it just turned 1. It’s not been an ideal first year. By all accounts it’s a stunning place, a stylish 1000-seater hall with a beautiful wooden interior, designed by Arup Acoustic consultants as a perfect setting for chamber music. Musicians, including Taikoz, Synergy, Musica Viva, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and even Christopher Hogwood, have given it a big thumbs up: the building is all that it promised to be in terms of sound.

Unfortunately, a perfect acoustic is not enough for the wolverine public. Their listening pleasure has been marred by a number of unfortunate slights, adding up to a whole lot of trouble. Firstly, the liquor licence left the building with the catering company which catered the first month’s celebrations. A dry performance venue? Not good. Secondly, the marketing and branding has got off to a patchy start. And thirdly, the ambitious full speed ahead program announced in February 2009 has fallen over big time, with concerts cancelled and artists disappointed (and cranky). A year on and there have been angry words, a number of redundancies and resignations and some very difficult questions asked about exactly what this beautiful hall is expected to achieve.

My Gramophone piece was pretty punchy  – I think it might still be in the Haymarket lawyers’ in tray waiting for vetting – but I’m now going to cross live to my better judgement to make some excuses for Melbourne’s newest venue.

Can I be so reasonable as to suggest it has been a victim of its own brilliance? The A$74.5 million project was delivered on time and on budget (and how often can builders say that?), and has gone on to win several architectural awards. It is head-turningly beautiful. (I haven’t been there, but the photos show a deliciously sculptural interior and Synergy’s manager and all round wise soul Anna Cerneaz, has said she was ‘electrified’ when she first saw it.) And, most importantly, it serves the music, and will continue to do so in the long term. In the short term, however, it has failed to make the transition from well conceived, designed, crafted and delivered public works project to working concert hall.

My modest proposal is that the skills needed to come up with a concept, a design and brilliantly executed build do not necessarily translate to the strange old world of operating a non-profit, only vaguely commercial, publicly funded performance space. The board — and by extension, the management who were appointed by the board — performed brilliantly throughout the build. And then, all of a sudden, the entire ball game changed but the board and management didn’t.

I’m going off to think some more about this. What do you think?


  1. The MRC is indeed a striking building, from without and within. The timber finishes on the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall are breathtaking works of art. The acoustics are great (my experience has been Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, chamber groups at the Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition, and a bit of Stockhausen for good measure). Good vibration damping means the trams outside cannot be felt or heard. Sir Neville Marriner, who conducted the MCO, rated the hall amongst the best. The location is also first rate, well within the broader arts precinct.

    You can put aside some of the gripes of Melbourne audiences. (Seat pitch too tight, no central aisle, can’t get an ice cream at interval). Melbourne is a bit like that. In my opinion, however, there are two or three shortcomings. The most serious is the size of the small salon. At 130 seats maximum, depending on set up, it is fine for small audiences, but can sell out quickly if a group is popular. The step up to 1000 seats is a big one. It is also the only multi function space for receptions etc. and has thus perhaps suffered from too broad a design context.

    The other (minor) shortcoming is audience access arrangements. The two narrow escalators are inadequately sized creating problems, particularly at interval, when one is left on up and the other on down. The stairs are however wide and accessible enough. The alternative function venue on the second level is rather narrow and does not work well unless for a fairly small afterparty.

    There are good explanations for these design limitations. The available land had also to house the two new theatres for the Melbourne Theatre Company (which has separate entrance, foyers and catering facilities). I guess after putting in the three major performance spaces there was only a limited area left to play with.

    Management issues were altogether different. The liquor licence debacle was a Fawlty Towers hoot. You arrived, months after the opening, to the sight of a standard licence notification form sticky taped to the glass doors. This at a major government owned and operated venue. You could have legislated a special licence arrangement in shorter time. Who was going to complain? The Victorian Art Gallery, or the ABC’s Iwaki Auditorium across the road? There was an upside though. Free drinks at interval. The treatment of artists was apparently awful. Ask the Goldner Quartet who had a Beethoven Cycle canned part way through, in spite of reportedly good attendances. Another quartet told me they were allowed two comps each for their subscription series, so were unable to offer tickets to key patrons and sponsors.

    As far as the programming and financial issues are concerned, is does seem as if the board was asleep at the wheel. It took a long time for action to be taken and heads to roll. It is true that different skills may be needed to bring a project to completion and then to operate the new business successfully. But boards are there to look over the horizon and to make sure the right key people with the right skills are in place to cover more than the short term and have workable plans in place.
    Apparently a new CEO and board chair have yet to be appointed. Let’s hope they are up to the task of building the Centre into the space of great performance it warrants.

  2. Thanks for this detailed response. It’s great to hear from someone who has thoroughly sampled what the building has to offer. I’m dying to take a look. Probably will be banned from the building now, though, if Gramophone puts my piece up. Ho hum.

  3. One interesting question is whether MRC should be a presenting house (which is what it tried to be last year) or a hall for hire.
    There is no good example of a presenting house for music that I know of in Australia. Wigmore Hall in London is often mentioned but Sydney and Melbourne are not London. London has a very large catchment area of artists as well as a very large audience. And Wigmore Hall has only about 500 seats. I’d love to have a Wigmore Hall in Sydney or Melbourne but can’t see it happening.
    Presenting and promoting concerts is not a skill in plentiful supply and most of it is tied up in successful organisations like Musica Viva, ABO, ACO and so on which do not need a presenting house.
    It seems to me that a concert hall in the country should concentrate on managing its space well and efficiently so it can offer it at the lowest cost to presenters.

    • Good point. I don’t know quite how Wigmore functions. Tiny hall, no rake on the seating, tiny foyer, no parking, no cafe… But needless to say it’s one of my favourite venues, perhaps because of the audience it has built up over a zillion years.

      I think it’s a case of needing a realistic business model (which inevitably needs a heap of $$ help while it establishes itself) and a sound artistic leadership as well, even if it is just to audition / balance the program – maybe a guest / part-time position?

      It must be frustrating to have put so many millions into the build, only to have the management say they need more just to run the place, but ask any arts administrator whether a venue is a money making proposition and they’ll soon set you straight.

      My husband (who is a business consultant) asked me why they cancelled concerts to save money – ‘Doesn’t that lose them ticket revenue?’ – and he was shocked to hear that a concert, even a sell-out, in the classical business, is a net expense.

  4. Good article. I’ve been to several events now, both in the main hall and the salon and can add a little more. The building is undoubtably beautiful on the outside, and the acoustics in the main hall are truly superb. But I have two main gripes – audience comfort, and access for artists. For audience comfort, the first issue is the foyer, which is cramped yet vertically cavernous, with audience members crouching under the aforementioned narrow escalators. In terms of a space for socialising (which we Melburnians adore so much), it’s plain horrid. Secondly the seating is uncomfortable and cramped – on top of the lack of central aisle, there is so little legroom that intimate encounters with your row-mates as they squeeze are inevitable and bordering on the obscene.

    My second, and greater gripe, is access for artists. Your article mentions the withdrawal of commitments to groups such as Goldner. The impact of this was huge. Non-major-league artists and groups have to juggle and plan a couple of years in advance, and “securing” a gig at the MRC meant that a big chunk of their diaries was committed to that…pulling out with little warning and the impossibly weak excuse that it was verbal agreement only is a rotten and unethical way to treat artists. And without being programmed by the Centre, most groups interested in performing there are prohibited from doing so by the exorbitant rental fees for the spaces.

    The MRC has some good things going for it, but I cannot endorse it until it demonstrates a real commitment and support for Australian artists and performance.

  5. I’ll second the complaint about the seat pitch being too tight, particularly in the upper gallery (the stalls are not so bad). I am a petite, slender person, and even I had no choice but to stand and breathe in if someone needed to pass my seat in the row. I’ve never been in any other venue where I couldn’t simply sit back and tuck my feet under the seat.

    And the foyer space is miserable, even more cramped than Sydney’s City Recital Hall. I think it’s telling that the architects’ renderings for the foyers showed them with five or six occupants at most. Perhaps if they should’ve been asked to prepare a rendering that showed the foyer filled with hundreds…

    I didn’t get to see the salon, but if it seats 130 people it sounds like an ideal space for a pre-concert talk. How ironic that the talk I attended was tucked away in a skinny space that could accommodate maybe 50 at most.

    I did like the sound of the main hall very much, though, and (at least in those early weeks), the smell of the wood interiors was divine.

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