The Factory exterior view - designed by OMA, with Ellen van Loon at OMA as child architect, image: ©OMA,Nov 2019
The Factory, exterior view at night - a flexible space for performing arts in Manchester, set to open in 2022, image: ©OMA,Nov 2019

The real vs. the virtual: performance and lived space

The classical concept of the grand concert venue is being reconfigured as a more flexible and open model. During the pandemic crisis, alternative formats and virtual concerts have changed the way cultural events have been experienced.  

Just before the second lockdown at the end of October I was able to attend a concert at the atmospheric Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, an improvised performance by jazz pianist and composer Florian Weber with the Ensemble Modern. The audience was arranged around the oval stage, which is at the same level with the first row of seats. Despite the distancing measures, the space felt intimate. The Frank Gehry -designed interior has been conceived as a flexible space with different ways to place the public in relation to the musicians.

Pierre Boulez Saal
Pierre Boulez Saal, a flexible and intimate concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry

The great halls, such as Paris Philharmonie by Jean Nouvel, Elbphilharmonie by Herzog de Mouron in Hamburg, and the more intimate ones like Pierre Boulez Saal, are like sacred spaces of the modern secular world, designed for acoustical perfection. It’s not just about the different tones and reverberations of sound in space, but also the phenomenological moment in a specific environment. Musical notes convey the ephemeral experience of being, a spiritual dimension in time, evoking the Baudelairean idea of the modernist aesthetic as a tension between the transitory and the eternal.

Jasper Parrott, who represents some of the world’s leading classical musicians, believes that there will be new types of venues in the future, not only online platforms, but also physical spaces that will provide more flexibility and more variety. As an example Parrott mentions the Factory, a multi-function cultural space in Manchester designed by OMA, still under construction and set to open in 2022. Although delayed by the pandemic, Parrott sees the positive side of the situation, which might ease the launch of this new centre, as they will have a longer period of experimentation and gestation. The building has been designed as an adaptable space, which can be transformed for different types of needs and performances.

The Factory, Manchester
The Factory exterior view – designed by OMA, Ellen van Loon as chief architect, image: ©OMA 2019

Other unexplored potential could be found for concert halls converted from redundant office buildings or even car parks Parrott suggests. The great potential of industrial spaces as concert venues could be witnessed at the Fiskars Summer Festival in Finland this the autumn, where a converted Fiskars factory building hosted performances of classical music with leading conductors, including Dalia Stasevska, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Klaus Mäkelä. Without any acoustical enhancement or sound proofing the concerts played out beautifully in that alternative set up. The acoustic qualities of that space were transformed by the presence of the audience, as cellist Senja Rummukainen pointed out. It was one of the last summer evenings, a special event for an audience that had been deprived by the lived experience  of music.

Fiskars Summer Festival 2020 at the Old Knife Factory
Fiskars Summer Festival at the Old Knife Factory with a programme of talks and concerts to mark the 90th anniversary of Jorma Panula
Fiskars Summer Festival 2020
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting his composition ‘Stockholm Diary’ for string orchestra, Fiskars Summer Festival at the Old Knife Factory

Public can now also enjoy live concerts through myriads of digital channels, provided by the great concert halls and orchestras. The Berlin Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall offers all concerts online through subscription or one-off purchase and Paris Philharmonie is streaming most concerts online for free. A new online platform Virtual Circle, will be launched by Parrott’s management company, for streaming live concerts as well as album launches and workshops. A digital archive of concerts from the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg is hosted by the German channel NDR . Reaching the public through digital formats also provides opportunities for musicians to keep on playing and performing, even in the absence of an audience. Although a recent interview I did for Arkkitehti with Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä made it clear, how musicians get energised and inspired by the presence of an audience. A full concert hall makes the best ambiance, also for the performers. The vineyard-shaped concert halls, create the most intimate exchange between the public and the stage area. As Mäkelä explained, even when most of the audience is often behind him, their reactions and the atmosphere is constantly felt by those on the stage.

For Parrott one of the most unforgettable concerts this year was Mäkelä’s debut at Paris Philharmonie in July. It was the first concert after the closure in the beginning of the year and the atmosphere was very special despite the safety measures. The Jean Nouvel -designed concert hall is one of the landmarks on the northern edge of the French capital city, a lavish cultural institution, which has transformed this previously deprived area. The spatial concept allows to adapt the placement of musicians, which Mäkelä is looking forward to experiment with when he starts as new musical director of Orchestra de Paris in 2022.

Marianna Wahlsten