Overhaul for a brighter future

LIKE MANY people, I've been wondering just what kind of miracle transformation it would take to shake the dowdy old utilitarian civic image off Glasgow's City Halls. It was tried before, more than a decade ago. Nothing major - just a cosmetic job by the then department of performing arts, which basically shuffled old spaces around, spent a few bob on a smarter box office, but still left you feeling you were in a poor relation to the plusher, newer and bigger Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Ultimately it was a quick fix that did nothing to revitalise a venue that seemed to have gone out of fashion the minute the surrounding Merchant City came into fashion. Despite continued use by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO), an outing to the City Hall remained - bar the famously fine acoustics and inventive new use of the old Fruitmarket space for jazz and other less formal genres - an unimpressive experience.

That's all about to change. Bit by bit, the scaffolding is coming down to reveal the extent of a 13 million renovation that has taken three years to complete, and will astound even those who thought they knew the City Halls intimately. Even in its current raw state - the original opening date of October has been delayed by a few months - the extent of the alterations is awesome. This is no MDF makeover in the Changing Rooms mould. When the complex opens its new doors in January - there's still an "i" to dot and "t" to cross on its publicised working title, The Gait - Glasgow will, to all intents and purposes, have a brand new, state-of-the-art, multi-purpose arts facility. The impact on the visitor will be instantaneous. What was previously a bland, functionless vestibule at the Candleriggs public entrance has been opened up to feed into a fashionable caf. To the side, in a prominent and spacious shop-window position, and next to the new box office area, will be the plush new public face of the Scottish Music Centre, a potentially influential organisation currently hidden away in an anonymous Glasgow West End terrace.

Upstairs, the surprises continue. The original bar area - closed off during the 1990s' alterations - has now been turned into a smart new recital room. The newer bar opposite, a design disaster as far as queuing and finding a spot to consume one's interval drink were concerned, now has an escape route on to the balcony of the Old Fruitmarket, where chairs and tables will help make interval conversation much more convivial. The Fruitmarket itself - sensitively modified to maintain its cobbled "Covent Garden" ambience - will remain functional as an alternative venue.

But the most critical changes lie in the main 1,200-seater auditorium. This was always going to be the most sensitive issue among the proposed changes. If any one argument justified the continued use of the City Hall, it was its renowned acoustics, and talk of heightening the roof, lowering the stage, removing the redundant organ screen and raking the stall seating has us wondering whether these acoustics might be ruined forever.

We won't know the answer to that until January, when the BBC SSO launches a series of opening concerts. But if the sound properties match up to the design changes, then Glasgow could have a very smart and very desirable concert venue on its hands.

The stage is now spacious enough to hold a Mahler-sized orchestra, positioned at floor level. The floor of the auditorium has been sunk several feet to accommodate the new raked audience seating, while the balcony levels have been reconfigured to give clear vision to everyone, and seating angles that will avoid cricked necks. The windows now function as windows - no longer sealed up, but allowing natural daylight in.

As for the much-feared raising of the roof, that was simply a fearful misinterpretation of the architect's intentions. The original ceiling panels have been replaced by a super-strong wire mesh (I was encouraged to "trampoline" on one, just to prove its strength!) which lets sound waves through to a higher roof vault, thus giving the effect of a larger acoustic.

But the changes don't end with the public spaces. This extraordinary rebuilding project has also had a Tardis effect in opening up a mountain of backroom space that was previously either hidden or unused. It's here that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will set up base in January and enjoy (along with other regular users such as the SCO) a spacious range of backstage facilities. Indeed, the most exciting aspect of this new City Halls complex is the fact that it will be lived in.

It's no secret that the catalyst for the whole project was the decision by the SSO to take up residence as the hall's main tenant. Without that, it's unlikely anything so worthwhile would have been done. Louise Mitchell, whose remit as director of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall has now been extended to oversee the wider artistic planning of the City Halls, confirms the importance of the SSO's presence. "Having such a major tenancy gives us a sound financial cushion, and the luxury of being able to take our time in developing a wider artistic strategy for the building," she says. Already, however, two of next year's GRCH International Concert Series events have been programmed for the City Halls, and the SCO - as I reported several weeks ago - will resume its regular Friday series there.

But there will be no ignoring the SSO's presence, says its director Hugh Macdonald, who first instigated partnership talks with the City Council almost ten years ago, and who recently announced he is to retire once the orchestra's relocation from Queen Margaret Drive is complete. "BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will be writ large above the reception desk," he adds proudly as we enter the musicians' main entrance in Albion Street.

It's here that the you experience yet another facet of the City Halls project. Here are rooms that will not only house soundproof recording suites for the SSO's production team, but also rooms equipped with communications technology that will be instrumental in driving the city council's music education projects within its schools.

But before all that gets going, attention will inevitably focus on the SSO's opening public events, and a series of concerts, details of which go public this week.

Both the orchestra's associated composers - heavyweight modernist Jonathan Harvey and the feisty young Scottish composer Anna Meredith - provide new works in January. In the same programme that Ilan Volkov conducts Harvey's Towards a Pure Land, the SSO's young Israeli chief conductor is joined by the Israel Piano Trio (in which his father is pianist) in Beethoven's Triple Concerto.

In an emerging monthly Thursday night series, Volkov also conducts Beethoven's Eroica, Martyn Brabbins gives us Bernstein's Chichester Psalms with the National Youth Choir of Scotland, and Vassily Sinaisky directs Mahler's Fifth Symphony. Players from the SSO will feature in a chamber music concert in the new Recital Room. Activity - including public recordings for Radio 3's Afternoon Performance and Discovering Music will not be confined to traditional evening slots. And more experimental programmes will take place in the Fruitmarket.

We are without a doubt entering an exciting and significant new phase in Glasgow's classical music scene. There will be challenges ahead in selling the City Hall idea to an already limited market. But, even trailing through the near-complete building in wellies and hard hat, I can tell you, this is going to be quite some venue.

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