Following a £42million revamp, and a troubled redevelopment that over ran by a year, the Fairfield Halls presented its re-opening Gala Concert given by the London Mozart Players.
Having both performed in the Halls and been a visitor in the past, I was keen to see the long awaited refurbishment after having witnessed a slow decline in the venue over the years. My transport options were: car, or two trains. I opted to drive, thinking I could park in the adjacent car park to the Fairfield Halls. The rush hour traffic was bad, the car park was closed due to the building works that are still being undertaken and I spent about half an hour driving round Croydon with poor car park signage (on street meters only allow for a two hour stay), and ended up in the NCP Whitgift car park.
Approaching the Fairfield Halls it was obvious that it is still work in progress. The outside seemed fresh and clean. After going through the doors and up the familiar stairs, what greeted me was a mass of people and a group of school children performing in the foyer. The place was buzzing. I decided to head over to the ‘Servery’ to see what would tempt me. There were some pre-wrapped sandwiches, crisps, fruit pots, pizza slices and some sausage rolls, all self-service with polystyrene plates. I ordered a small cappuccino that was served in a large paper cup, half full! The images of this refurbished area when it is empty look modern, clean and bright, but the reality is the same problem experienced in previous years with a glut of people congregating in the middle. This, combined with the sad coffee experience, reminded me of a motorway service station I had visited in the summer. I bumped into another friend who said, “It doesn’t feel much different.” Maybe because of the crowds we couldn’t appreciate the full effect.
The concert hall itself, renamed The Phoenix Concert Hall, has been brought up to date and freshened up with its colour palate. Designed as a scaled down version of the Royal Festival Hall in London, it has always had a worldwide reputation for its excellent acoustics (both venues shared the same acoustic consultant, Hope Bagenal). The flip-down seats have been refurbished not replaced and one or two still looked a bit worn.
After a 20-minute delay, the London Mozart Players took their places on stage and kicked off with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D, the ‘Classical’ with Howard Shelley conducting. The playing was superb and positively sparkled. The sound in the Hall was excellent (apart from a low thrum of the air-conditioning unit which could be heard in the very quiet passages). Next were two Mozart arias sung by soprano, Elizabeth Watts. Her rich voice resonated throughout the auditorium and Jane Glover conducted the accompanying orchestra and piano. A new piece by Woolf called Fairfield Fanfare was given its world premiere before the interval. Conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton, this piece was a real surprise and was very well received by the audience. After the interval, the orchestra gave a superb performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 7 – the build up in the slow movement was sublime. This was conducted with great gusto by Gerard Korsten (I found his foot stamping a bit annoying). The audience response was fantastic.
As in previous years, crowd flow meant it took ages to get out of the Hall (it would be difficult to evacuate in an emergency). I walked back to the NCP and paid £12 for the privilege of staying in a run-down car park.
My overall impression is that the concert itself was superb and the acoustics in the Hall are excellent. As a resident orchestra, the London Mozart Players are a vibrant and impressive group of international quality. The problem is the concert going ‘experience’. However, full marks to Croydon Council for providing a concert hall that has the potential to become an international venue. Future concerts would have to be really special for me to want to return.