Modern Theatres 1950 to 2020: Koncerthuset Kopenhagen

Most like it, others find it odd. French architect Jean Nouvel’s rectangular blue box, now approaching its 10th anniversary, stands as the landmark of a new neighbourhood, but it wasn’t off to an easy start. With a price tag twice as high as expected, it spurred political discussion, created organizational turmoil, and cost numerous jobs in the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. But its variety of programmes have been embraced by Copenhagen’s concert goers.

When in 1994 Mr. Christian Nissen took office as General Director of Denmarks’s Radio - for short “DR” - “multimediality” was the buzzword in media circles. With the coming of the internet, DR - like all other media - would soon be expected to establish an online platform. Journalists or departments who had been producing for either radio or flow-tv - with sharp division between the two - would soon have to reorganize and produce content for all three platforms.

A working group established by Nissen concluded that major technological investments were required, and that DR’s existing production facilities in, respectively, the old radio house in the city centre, and the “television city” in the suburb of Gladsaxe, were unsuitable for the purpose. 

In the old Radio House, many employees took particular pride the weekly concerts with the DR Symphony Orchestra, broadcasted throughout Europe via the EBU network. Hailing from the days when the ability to transmit live music was fundamental to radio production, the radio’s “Studio 1” - an 1100 seat concert hall designed by Vilhelm Lauritsen in the late 1930’s - was praised for its excellent acoustics. Studios 2, 3 and 4 provided rehearsal and intimate concert space for the Radio Entertainment Orchestra - a 32-member sinfonietta - as well as for the acclaimed DR Big Band, the radio concert choir, and the girl’s choir. At the time, concerts with these ensembles were considered unsuitable and rather boring for television, and were only rarely broadcasted via that media.  

Breaking new ground in more ways than one

Facing the new multimedia reality, DR began investigating where and how a new, centralized production headquarters for DR could be realized. Attention was soon directed to the “Ørestad”, a 5 km long and 600 meter wide strip of land stretching from a point just south of downtown to the airport highway. Since long a nature reserve, the area had just been released by the government for the purpose of urban development, and would within a few years be served by a new metro line. To both national and local government, DR would be a welcomed land owner. 

Having secured a government loan of DKK 2,3 billion, and allocating DKK 700 million of its own operating budget for the purpose, DR decided to build a new multimedia complex made up of four major buildings, each with its own architect, and connected two and two via a large internal bridge across a water channel. The development was named “DR Byen” - the “DR City”.

Leading up to this 1999 decision, the board briefly contemplated keeping its music production in the old venue, knowing that a new concert hall would be expensive. Yet, in order to still provide productions of high quality and attract known soloists and acclaimed conductors, and not to risk losing its ownership of the orchestras in the long term, it was decided to migrate DR’s live music activities to a brand new concert hall. This was a bold decision at a time when other national European broadcasters were giving in to financial or political pressure and were cutting decade-long ties to their broadcast orchestras. However, aiding the decision was the fact that the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music was eager to take ownership of the soon-to-be-abandoned radio house and its concert hall, and presented plans to turn the facilities into much needed new setting for professional music education. 

Christian Nissen and board chairman Finn Aaberg, both eager concert goers, were aware that the new DR venue would likely be the only venue of its kind to be built in Denmark for decades to come, and knew that it would be irresponsible not to construct a venue that would live up to the highest qualitative and functional standards. In early 2001, DR prequalified eight acousticians, among whom interested architects could select a collaborative partner for the architectural competition held later that year. By competition deadline in January 2002, three Danish and four international architects entered their design proposals. In March 2002, a group consisting of French Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, and British engineering team Flack + Kurtz were announced project winners.

When Jean Nouvel first visited the Ørestad, the area was a barren field. He later explained how during the visit he imagined the concert hall landing like a meteor on an empty planet; a thought that would carry through in his design: At night, when the blue screen exterior of the building becomes almost transparent, the outer shell of the concert hall is visible as a giant, iron-coloured, unevenly edged rock. Inside, the “meteor” creates a massif ceiling body suspended above foyer and corridors. When entering via a series of escalators leading to the sides of the meteor, audiences find an 1800 seat concert hall with terraced seats surrounding the orchestra, inspired by the Berlin Philharmonic and L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Financial shortfalls

Shortly after groundbreaking in July 2002, the new concert hall was proclaimed to open in April 2007. Its DKK 700 million budget (already up 30 % from Jean Nouvel’s estimate in his winning proposal) represented nearly a quarter of the construction budget for the new DR City. Except for a few sceptics (including some technical experts), few expected that by the time the concert hall would finally open in January 2009, construction costs for the DR City had soaring to DKK 5 billion, with the concert hall accounting for almost DKK 1,6 billion, or 32% of the total cost and almost half of the overrun. This was in spite of cutting architectural features along the way and transferring various technical acquisitions from the construction budget to lease contracts and future operating budgets.

Shortfalls to the continuously expanding budgets were revealed at various stages during the construction process, causing public debate over venue. Politicians were not pleased to agree to additional loans, and the public and the media became skeptical of the way in which DR was spending license fees. Hence, DR was forced to announce savings. Between 2003 - 2008, as many as 500 employees lost their jobs. Also senior management was held accountable. In October 2004, when the overruns were expected to be only DKK 3-400 million, General Director Christian Nissen was fired, and the Chairman of the Board resigned a week later. Two years later, they were followed by DR’s CFO, as well as the DR City’s Project Director. An independent auditors report requested by the government and published in 2008 listed a range of causes for the financial problems, including increased cost of suppliers, poor management control, disputes with architects, higher-than-expected water levels at the construction site, and many other issues. Few doubt, however, that fundamental underestimations - or maybe (politically necessary?) “optimistic” calculations - were present at the very offset of the project.

Audiences - from props to a target group in its own right.

The financial turmoil had severe consequences for the organization’s internal ability to prepare for the actual operations of the new concert hall, an exercise which in itself was no easy feat in an organization with no tradition for modern “best practice” in venue management: Being considered a radio studio, the old venue’s booking calendar was handled by DR’s technicians. Ushers and cloak room staff were the responsibility of the symphony orchestra’s marketing staff; the ticket sales office staff referred to the director of the sinfonietta, and the responsibility for the (rather limited) sale of intermission drinks fell on the DR canteen - which was operated by an external catering company. Moreover, DR’s target groups were by definition “listeners” and “viewers”, not live audiences, as these were essentially only upon as being “props” for productions. Getting them into a studio for a radio or television programme was the responsibility of a producer, often as an afterthought, resulting in the fact that that DR’s various live audiences being treated in a multitude of ways. Only the symphony orchestra had a strategic approach to its (ailing) 6000 mainly Copenhagen-based subscribers. 

Prior to groundbreaking, a working group had recognized that the new concert hall needed a separate management and a professional organization. However, detailed strategic and organizational plans developed by an experienced venue manager hired in 2003 weren’t given consideration by neither board or senior management in the midst of the budget turbulence, and when General Director Christian Nissen was fired, backing for venue manager’s role and the required changes in operational procedures vanished. An interim general director had little focus on the matter, and the appointment in 2005 of a new general director, Kenneth Plummer, led to major organizational changes throughout DR in order to implement saving. Plummer compared the concert hall to running a movie theatre (with which he had prior experience), let go of the separate management idea as part of the cost saving exercises, and transferred the responsibility for DR’s music production to an inexperienced Production Division Manager, who on his part wanted the concert hall managed on a daily basis by the sinfonietta’s administration. 

Consequently, over the course of the next 15 month, not only did the manager of the sinfonietta leave. Also the experienced manager of the symphony orchestra - at the time the only person remaining in a leadership role with actual prior knowledge of audience handling and venue operations - was fired. (So was, shortly thereafter, the Production Division Manager, as well as his superior, the former interim General Director). Five years of preparation time had been lost and hundreds of documents and plans produced in vain by those involved, when with less than 12 months to the opening, Plummer finally appointed long-time director of radio programming, Leif Lønsmann, as new music director and head of the concert hall. (On a side note, also Plummer was fired a few years later when a journalistic biography severely discredited his management skills).

New audiences in challenging design

The opening of the concert hall on January 17, 2009, was widely covered by national media, not least DR itself. Attended by the royal family, members of government and parliament, donors and dignitaries, the opening concert was well received, and soon the financial struggles and its consequences were no longer in the minds of the general public. The orchestras and choirs welcomed their new home, and both media and audiences gave mainly positive reviews of the new venue. 

Critics, however, felt that the acoustics were too dry. Designed to suit radio broadcast, reverberation time was only 2,1 with audiences present, and 2,3 without. The organ - constructed by Dutch organ builders Van de Heuvel - was criticized for being too meager to fill the room. 

The dryness problem was solved by covering some of the small sound-absorbing holes in the walls, thereby slightly increasing the reflective surface area. The organ was given additional volume by installing a sound reflecting surface behind the pipes. In reality, the changes were inaudible and impossible to measure with any degree of certainty, but press stories explaining that the problems had been solved silenced the critics. Even the orchestral canopy, which various conductors requested either lowered or hoisted for their concerts in the beginning, found a permanent position 16,5 meters above the stage. 

However, to this day DR Koncerthuset still deals with various infrastructural problems. Escalators bringing audiences from the ground floor to the main foyer level create audience clutters if operated as intended by the architect due to too narrow landing space. The cloakroom - installed on a system of movable flight boxes - creates ques, block sight lines, and limits access to the bars when placed in its usual position in the foyer. Too few parking spaces and inadequate signage also annoy audiences.

Slow process towards streamlined operations and versatile programming

After the opening, DR gradually embraced the fact that Koncerthuset couldn’t and shouldn’t merely operate in the same way as the old radio concert hall. The venue drew curious, new audiences who were different in behavior from the ailing subscribers to the Symphony Orchestra, and expected a higher standard of services. Moreover, Koncerthuset became an interesting venue of choice for non-classical concerts and non-concert events organized by DR’s other departments, including pop music award shows hosted by the radio channels, political debates hosted by new anchors, family shows with popular childrens’ television hosts, and other. 42 such programmes were broadcasted from DR Koncerthuset in 2017, in addition to 76 concerts with DR’s symphony orchestra. The latter are typically recorded and edited for later, 1-hour long television broadcasts on DR’s culture channel, giving rise to the popularity of the orchestra. In 2011, Koncerthuset invested DKK 20 million in new technical facilities to better accommodate television broadcast, and Koncerthuset has continuously invested in state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment, mainly for use at non-acoustic shows and events.

Since its opening, Koncerthuset has also earned valuable income from rental events and non-broadcasted concerts presented by DR in association with promoters of popular artists. Such events are organised on market terms with no spending of public license fees. In 2017, they totaled 189 events, of which 163 were with touring artists, while 26 were conferences and other business events. The focus on operating the concert hall independently, commercially, and service-focused, took off in 2011 when Leif Lønsmann’s role was divided in two. Lønsmann was appointed concert hall director, while former sinfonietta manager Kim Bohr was re-engaged as artistic director with programming responsibility for DR’s own ensembles. 

Koncerthuset in 2018: A popular venue with challenges

Only four years after Kim Bohr’s return to the organization, and much to the surprise and dissatisfaction of the general public, DR decided to save DKK 30 mio by closing the popular sinfonietta, which at the time enjoyed a following of 10.000+ loyalty club members scattered across the country, and held concerts in Koncerthuset on a regular basis. Saving the operating costs of the “small orchestra”, however, allowed for the DR Symphony Orchestra to grow to 106 musicians, after its numbers had dwindled from 99 musicians in 1999 to only 92 musicians in 2008 due to the ongoing cuts. The symphony orchestra now replaces the sinfonietta at popular events, including DR’s outdoor summer concerts. Also the DR Big Band expanded, from 16 to 20 musicians. In between its national and international tours, the band presented some 17 concerts in Koncerthuset in 2017. Combined with its two popular professional choirs (20 in-house concerts in 2017), a children’s choir school, and a music education programme named “Musikariet”, which in 2017 hosted 43 music events for schools and other children’s groups, the DR Koncerthuset continues to grow in popularity. In 2017, a total of 352.842 guests came to Koncerthuset for a total of 428 events. 

In 2018, DR launched a new online ticketing platform serving not only the users of the concert hall, but also audiences for some of the shows and programmes held in DR’s other television and radio studios, and audiences for DR productions elsewhere in Denmark. Furthermore, food and beverage services that were previously outsourced to DR’s external caterer have recently been insourced by the concert hall administration in order to maintain quality control and earn additional revenue. Both initiatives indicates DR’s gradual recognition of the need to recognize and serve live audiences as a target group in its own right.

However, DR Koncerthuset still causes debate. Prior to DR’s negotiation with the government on the renewal of the Public Service Charter, some political parties suggested the concert hall operations to be outsourced as part of a general cost-cutting exercise. By 2022, DR stands to lose about one-fifth of its budget and must reinvent its channels to focus more on “public service” than on “commercial”-style television and radio concepts. However, a report from the Ministry of Culture concluded that Koncerthuset and the ensembles are to remain within DR, as outsourcing would have no financial benefit. Hence, at the time of completing this article, DR’s music production is expected not to be inflicted by the cut of almost 400 jobs in the general organization. Still, some organizational changes in are anticipated following the involuntary departure general manager Leif Lønsmann, who in September 2018 lost an internal power struggle with Kim Bohr, supposedly based on differences in  programming priorities. To what extent Koncerthuset will maintain a commercial focus with rentals to external organisers, or rather focus on serving DR’s ensembles mainly, remains to be seen. Still, as the venue approaches its 10th anniversary in January 2019, now with Kim Bohr as head of all music production as well as venue operations, DR Koncerthuset is positioned as an important player on Copenhagen’s cultural scene, and its music activities are will continue to serve as an inspiration to music life in Denmark for many years to come.

Rewards

Since its opening, Jean Nouvel’s daring and unique design of Koncerthuset has received acclaim on a number of occasions, and was awarded the European Steel Award (2009), Wallpaper Design Awards (2010), as well as several Danish awards. In was listed in 2012 by Gramophones as one of the best 10 concert halls in the world, and in 2016 recognized by FIDIC as one of the “Buildings of the Century”.

The author: Allan Xenius Grige Senior Consultant, Theatre Projects Owner, Copenhagen Arts & Culture Consult Lecturer, Copenhagen Business School


BTR Ausgabe 6 2018
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 254
von Allan Xenius Grige