National conservatoire makes Cardiff a city of music

Geraint Talfan Davies reflects on the opening of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s new building

Buildings speak loudly of the values and aspirations of those who conceive them. That is why the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s fine new building says so much, not only about the college but also about the city and country that is its home. If Wales is a ‘land of song’, Cardiff might be called ‘a city of music’. And this new architectural jewel is a bold and beautiful reinforcement of those claims.

The college now has three stunning public spaces – the 450-seat Dora Stoutzker Hall (pictured left), surely destined to be Cardiff’s Wigmore Hall, the 160-seat Richard Burton Theatre (pictured below), equipped in every way for an intimate style of theatre, and a breath-taking entrance foyer that opens onto that other jewel of the capital, the grounds of Cardiff Castle, Bute Park. This is going to be a very popular venue.

In recent centuries Wales has often sought to express its valued culture in buildings: the National Museum in Cardiff, the National Library at Aberystwyth, and, on a lesser scale – but no less impressive in commitment – the Miners’ Institutes that dominated so many valley towns, until industrial decline corroded their founding spirit. Yet as our performance culture reached out beyond its deep amateur roots to a new professionalism, it was forced to wait through frustrating decades for the bold new spaces that such professionalism, and the audiences that it created, deserved.

The notion of culture as a driver of economic renaissance is a very recent phenomenon. I grew up in the Welsh capital in the fifties, then a city without a concert hall, or an opera house, or a producing theatre. In Cardiff a disused chapel sufficed as the first television studios, while a banqueting hall – the City Hall’s Assembly Rooms – often made do as a concert hall despite its inappropriate shape and acoustics.

But, artistically, things were stirring. In the aftermath of war, Welsh National Opera had given its first performance in 1946, the same year that the BBC’s Welsh Orchestra was re-created after a wartime hiatus. Three years later the Cardiff College of Music opened in small but exotic rooms in Cardiff Castle – the caterpillar to today’s Royal Welsh College butterfly. Radio drama was enjoying its golden years, as Welsh broadcasting expanded. With the development of television, in both Welsh and English, the demand for actors and singers accelerated.

A combination of increased prosperity, growing public funding for the arts and the expansion of broadcasting saw an astonishing cultural flowering in Cardiff and Wales: In the 1960s the creation of BBC Wales and its move to a new broadcasting centre in Llandaff. In the 1970s the opening of a producing theatre, the Sherman Theatre, in a new university-owned building, hard on the heels of the creation of Chapter Arts Centre.

In 1982 Cardiff finally got a purpose-built concert hall – St. David’s Hall – a development with two immediate and historic consequences: the enlargement of the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra to full symphonic size, later to be renamed the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – and the launch of the Cardiff Singer of the World, a competition of global significance.

Soon there was a flurry of new building across Wales, a trend that gained pace with the advent of the national lottery, benefiting Aberystwyth, Brecon, Cardigan, Milford Haven, Newport, Newtown, Caernarfon, Llandudno, and Ruthin.

In the capital what St. David’s Hall did for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Wales Millennium Centre is now doing for Welsh National Opera – now a partner in RWCMD’s MA in Opera Performance. The BBC orchestra will take another stride forward in its new Hoddinott Hall at the Wales Millennium Centre, and the renewal of the Sherman Theatre building, currently under way, will do likewise for that company. The same could be said at Galeri in Caernarfon, the Mostyn Gallery in Llandudno or the Torch Theatre at Milford Haven. Buildings can lift the profile and the sights of organisations, as well as giving them the tools that they need.

That is the significance of this new building and the real value of the gift of ‘clarity and elegance’ for which the architect, Jason Flanagan of the London architects BFLS, has striven so successfully. Our National Conservatoire in the heart of our capital city, will sit cheek by jowl with one of the finest civic centres anywhere in the world, finally living up in every way to the Edwardian confidence of those buildings. It is a refreshing symbol of creative renewal, and an open invitation to all who share its purpose. It is also a sign that Wales is as determined as ever to bring its own enduring sparkle to the kaleidoscopic world of stage and screen.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA and of Welsh National Opera.

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