The Royal Albert Hall reopened on ‘Freedom Day’ with a 150th anniversary concert that will go down in history as another remarkable moment in the stunning London venue’s extraordinary history. Access speaks to the team involved.
With £60 million in lost ticket sales income, £10m in ticket refunds and having taken a £20m loan from Government because of the pandemic, the team at the Royal Albert Hall deserved a little luck.
Having pushed back the venue’s 150th Anniversary Concert from its 29 March birthday to July 19, the 5,272-capacity Hall became one of the first venues in England to welcome a full audience.
“It was pure serendipity,” says Royal Albert Hall director of external affairs Louise Halliday (pictured). “We were expecting to be at full capacity back in June and then it was announced it was being pushed back to 19 July ¬– we all looked each other on Zoom and thought ‘oh my god this just couldn’t be a more perfect way to celebrate the anniversary and reopening at full capacity’.”
With the Hall having been closed for the first time since the Blitz, the event merely taking place was a major landmark but the focus on the night was celebrating the many landmarks in the Italianate-style Hall’s long and fascinating history
Soundtrack composer David Arnold had been commissioned to write a piece for the concert and the result was A Circle of Sound – a composition consisting of 10 movements that individually focused on separate aspects of the Hall’s past.
The themes of each of the ten movements ranged from the Hall’s role during the Suffragette’s campaign, its history as a centre for scientific discussion and demonstration, it having hosted 1,200 sporting events and being synonymous with the BBC Proms to the many landmark live music moments.
Accompanying the music was archive film footage presented on a big screen by production house White Stone Media, while the likes of Melanie C, Michael Sheen, Brian Cox, Claudia Winkleman and Charles Dance took to the stage to present readings about each movement penned by writers Neil Gaiman, Jack Thorne, Dorian Lynskey and Joe Penhall.
Just like its delivery on the night, the composition was far from a solo effort. While working on the piece, Arnold spent more than a year collaborating with local choirs, schools and other community groups who took to the stage on the night with support from the venue’s in-house Albert’s Orchestra and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. The event was produced by creative agency People.
Halliday admits that the evening was not only triumphant but a little terrifying: “We didn’t know how it was going to go, everyone was a bit rusty because we had been closed for so long so we had to get everyone back trained and into the swing of having 5,000 people back in the venue. On top of the rustiness, we also had all of the additional Covid requirements and the fact that staff and audience were both a bit nervous. It was a brilliant, terrifying and emotional day.”
The venue’s comeback concert was an uplifting evening for all involved including Arnold, but he says he was far from an obvious choice to orchestrate the music. The composer is renowned for his work on five James Bond films, blockbusters such as Independence Day, and TV hits including Sherlock – but not concerts.
“I was surprised they asked me because I am not a concert composer and the world’s greatest composers have appeared there and their music is still played there, but I was super excited because I love the hall so much,” he says.
With the venue almost entirely shut for 14 months, aside from hosting a few livestreamed shows, Arnold had the run of the venue and says he found the opportunity for quiet contemplation in the building inspiring: “To be granted access and be able to wander and sit and contemplate and feel the place – to be open to it and let the history sink in – that was a privileged position and it enabled me to create an Albert Hall mood board in my mind.
“It’s a stunning building but one day I made the mistake of going there when they were cleaning it. The fronts come off the boxes and the mushrooms [acoustic diffusers] come down from above and it is like watching someone get changed – you are not sure you really want to be looking.”
Arnold describes his work as an “impressionistic bio-pic” of the Hall, and the show certainly brought the rich tapestry of the venue’s history to life. While many are aware of the array of concerts that have taken place there – from Jimi Hendrix, Cream and The Beatles to Adele and Ed Sheeran, Kylie Minogue and Kraftwerk – its relationship with sports is equally varied.
While Arnold’s own father was among greats such as Muhammad Ali to box at the Royal Albert Hall, even he was surprised at learn of some of the more unusual sporting events to be held at the venue – not least chessboxing where competitors would do a round of boxing and then three minutes on the chess board continuously until someone was victorious.
“The venue smells different now, after about three weeks of it being closed is felt like it was dead, it’s come back to life.”
The Hall also hosted Britain’s first indoor marathon in 1909, when Italian Dorando Pietri and London’s C. W. Gardiner attempted to run 524 laps of the auditorium.
“It was so boring they employed an orchestra to keep the paying audience of 2,000 entertained,” laughs Arnold. “The Italian couldn’t finish because nobody had considered that when you are running in a tight circle you are constantly leaning to one side, so his left leg packed in.”
When it comes to considering the impact of the pandemic on the music community, Arnold understandably takes a far more serious tone.
He says, “Pretty much everyone I know didn’t qualify for any support. I know people that are some of the best musicians in the country who had to start driving delivery vans, that’s not denigrating that job at all, it’s important, but when you have one of the best pedal steel players in the country doing that it seems like a terrible waste.
“The rug was well and truly pulled. Obviously Covid-19 had serious consequences, but the abandonment of the music and theatrical sector is baffling to me because it is so productive in terms of what it contributes socially and financially to the country.”
Halliday says that while post-reopening ticket sales indicate it may take a little time before the public’s confidence fully recovers, with the venue open again, hosting musicians, audiences and event staff, the atmosphere has been transformed.
“Our loyal staff have stuck with us for more than a year and it’s amazing to see them in the venue again, and how much they are enjoying being back. The venue smells different now, after about three weeks of it being closed is felt like it was dead, it’s come back to life.”