Ushering in new era
Written by Helen Fowler Wednesday, 30 September 2009 01:00
Edinburgh's most iconic concert hall has at last re-opened its doors to the public. The saucer-shaped roof of the Usher Hall is no longer hidden under scaffolding; earlier this month it emerged from its dust, tarpaulin and ladders. Just in time for the Edinburgh International Festival. Inside the Grade A-listed building are wonderful new facilities. Perhaps most notably, the vast spiral staircase that connects - for the first time - all the levels. The massive refurbishment project - not yet quite complete, as the Portakabins remaining outside can testify - is turning the well-loved Victorian building into a state-of-the-art facility for the 21st century.
"The aspiration of the project is to improve the flow of the building, increase physical access and create new opportunities for education and development activities within the Usher Hall," says hall management. Seating capacity has increased to 2,200, there is a new lighting rig suitable for all types of concerts and shows, a world-class podium, improved bars, and a stylish new entrance. At the most basic level, there are more and better toilet facilities - welcome news to anyone who has ever braved the infamous Usher Hall interval queues.
The project started in 2007 and was meant to be finished within a year. But unexpected challenges cropped up, as unexpected challenges tend to do with buildings as old as the Usher Hall. Problems with the ground and walls made the work increasingly complex. Now, however, the main part of the building is back in business. The new glass extension on the Grindlay Street side of the building is to open in autumn, with a box office and foyer with daytime cafe. Landscaping around the hall this autumn will create a new 'Arts Quarter' around the Usher Hall and two neighbouring theatres - the Traverse and the Royal Lyceum.
One thing architects and management have left untouched are the hall's acoustics - Jonathan Mills, director of the EIF, has said: "The hall offers a special warmth and clarity of sound that can help make a performance genuinely special." My own (limited) experience bears that out - one of the musical highlights of my life was hearing a performance at the Usher Hall of Shostakovich by a Russian orchestra. It was some years ago now and yet I still remember it like yesterday, the experience was so intense, so all-consuming. Among the highlights coming up in the hall's autumn season are visits by the Buena Vista Social Club, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Joan Baez. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra will be in residence too. Hall general manager, Karl Chapman, has set up this blog to keep people up to date on progress with the refurbishment. Hall - and blog - are both well worth a visit.