The time for Cambridge’s new large concert hall has arrived

The announcement by the University of Cambridge that it is creating a Centre for Music Performance [see the press release here] is the perfect opportunity to deliver on a much-needed civic and municipal masterpiece that has been the subject of public debate since the 1960s. See also the petition here to the University of Cambridge and Cambridge City Council together.

If you want to go back further, you can trace the debate back to the 1850s with this design by architects Peck and Stephens for Charles Henry Cooper, then the Town Clerk.

In the end Cambridge only commissioned and built the large hall that was part of this design. That’s not to say we could not re-use this design as a base from which to improve upon – in the interests of saving resources and carbon emissions! I sourced an original copy of this print from The Builder in 1860, and blew it up to A2 size. It’s a wonderful image that comes into its own at that size.

“This initiative will contribute to the recovery of the physical University in the wake of the pandemic, and is an important signal of Cambridge’s ongoing commitment to the performing arts.

The Centre for Music Performance heralds a step-change in music of all genres for outreach and inclusion, and for wellbeing across collegiate Cambridge. Maintaining a tradition of excellence, it will also seal the University’s position on a world stage for music performance.”

There is only one thing missing from the press release and the quotations: the sense that Cambridge is more than just an old university and its colleges; it is a city as well – one that the ancient institutions share with its residents and institutions old and new. Cambridge’s borough council received its first Royal Charter back in 1207. Two years later, the town gave refuge to a group of scholars fleeing a hostile Oxford. And thus began a quarrel between the two that was to last for nearly seven hundred years, until one of the greatest group of women in Cambridge’s history decided to do something about this – and many other social problems that town and gown faced. Dr Ann Kennedy Smith has their story. I’ve picked out a few more of those great women here, without whom Cambridge would be a very different place.

“Music unites us. It has the power to inspire, comfort and transcend the every day. It provides a window into other cultures, and an outlet for self-expression.

It is life-affirming.”

There are many quotations out there that testify to the power of music. Back in 2008 when I was living and working in London in the civil service, I remember listening to The Proms on the radio. Sir Roger Norrington (Clare College) then gave a public speech which finished with this very short poem – one that has stayed with me:

“Music brings us joy and love; music deepens feeling.

Music feeds our hearts and minds.

Music brings us healing.

Music can be so profound, but music can be fun.

Music quickens all our lives.

Music makes us one.”

Sir Roger Norrington, The Proms, Sept 2008

20th Century Cambridge saw a number of great women and men changing the culture of conflict between town and gown to one of co-operation – something that has only recently been recognised by both sides. One of the pioneers of this was Sir Horace Darwin, youngest son of Charles the botanist who served as a Liberal Party councillor in the 1890s.

Above – Cambridge Mayor Horace Darwin, from Horace Darwin’s Shop (1987), who also founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, which would employ generations of local residents. See the Museum of Technology’s exhibition when it re-opens.

We can’t mention Sir Horace without mentioning his incredible wife Lady Ida Darwin, the pioneering healthcare campaigner of whom we named a hospital near Fulbourn after her. Ditto the unbuilt guildhall that Sir Horace commissioned John Belcher the architect to come up with a new design for.

Above – what we could have had. Ratepayers and opposition Conservative councillors rejected it. Twice! Once in 1898 and again in 1913.

Cambridge Architect Gordon Logie’s plans for the Cambridge Music School

Had Cambridge City Council’s Architect Gordon Logie got his way, the centre of Cambridge could have looked very different.

Above – from The Cambridge that Never Was, Reeve 1976.

Where “Barbie’s hotel’ is on Downing Street would have become a new large concert hall (number 6 on the image above), with a new arts centre, music school, and international centre also incorporated. The woman who saved the historical front of the Robert Sayle building amongst other things, and Gordon Logie’s nemesis, was Newnham College’s Dr Alice Roughton, who led the fight to save many Cambridge town buildings in the 1960s with varying degrees of success.

When the Corn Exchange closed in the mid-1980s along with the Beaconsfield Club, the Carioca, and The Dorothy in quick succession, Cambridge’s teenagers and young people had a riot. Literally.

The 1970s & 1980s saw the closure of one music venue after another in Cambridge.

  • The Carioca on Newmarket Road (which I sometimes call Cambridge’s Atheist Tabernacle)
  • The Beaconsfield Club down Gwydir Street
  • The Cambridge Corn Exchange – while the city council worked out what to do with it
  • The Dorothy Cafe – now Waterstones
  • The Alexandra Hall in the old YMCA – demolished to make way for the Lion Yard Shopping Centre

Cambridge’s young people protested and campaigned peacefully for several years – to the extent that Anne Grubb wrote a dissertation on the subject in 1982 (you can read it in the Cambridgeshire Collection when it re-opens – I’ll ask them to digitise it). Such campaigning did not come to fruition. So they had a riot. Or rather, they occupied a disused cycle warehouse labelled for demolition. The police and authorities did not like this, so sent in riot police. It ended violently. Police ended up in hospital, young people were hauled before magistrates, and councillors realised this situation was unsustainable. The result? The Junction on the old Cattle Market.

Cambridge’s population has increased by 30,000 since the opening of The Junction. It is likely to increase by the same amount in the next 15 years.

Yet The Junction opened only four years after the Cambridge Corn Exchange was converted into a concert hall, and the latter remains the largest indoor civic concert hall in Cambridge. And being on stage and on the receiving end of a huge applause from a full house during a large concert at the Corn Exchange will remain one of the most emotionally powerful life experiences I’ve ever had.

….and we were singing in Icelandic! From 2014 by the then Dowsing Sound Collective, now We Are Sound Music, the brainchild of Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds musician Andrea Cockerton. We’re aching to get back to rehearsing and performing again!

Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council have already stated on more than one occasion that Cambridge needs a new, larger performance venue.

I pulled together a case for a new concert hall back in 2017 in this blogpost. In that blogpost I referenced the 2013 report by Cambridge City Council and & South Cambridgeshire Council titled:

“Major Facilities Sub Regional Facilities in the Cambridge Area
Review of Evidence and Site Options”

You can read the report here. In paragraph 2.23 & 2.24 it states:

“When reviewing music provision, [The Arts and Culture Strategy for the Cambridge Sub-Region 2006] identified existing provision at the Corn Exchange, the Junction, the University’s West Road Concert Hall, and Ely Cathedral. It notes that despite a distinguished music tradition, there is no purpose-built large-scale venue provision within the Cambridge sub-region.

“It states, ‘Although there is a wide range of music venues at the small and medium scale in and around Cambridge, there is growing interest in testing the case for a purpose-built auditorium for large scale music – the nearest concert halls are at Aldeburgh and in Nottingham, Birmingham and London.’

“A purpose built concert hall would be a long term project of regional significance with a 10– 15 year development timetable. It would significantly raise the cultural offer of the
Cambridge sub-region: the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) has identified culture
and quality of life issues as being critically important in maintaining Cambridge’s place in
the increasingly competitive global market place for academia, science and technology and
the knowledge economies.”

A quarter of a century has passed since that arts & culture strategy was written. In that time, demand for a large concert hall has not diminished. The most recent call was evidenced by responses to the detailed consultants’ report on North East Cambridge published in 2020 here.

Where would we build a new concert hall?

If Cambridge University is behind it, land that it or the colleges own would be the first port of call. I dealt with this in my 2017 blogpost – the site of the old Cambridge Assessment offices on Hills Road, formerly The Perse School before its move in the 1960s further down the road. This was also the site that was hit by incendiaries during an air raid by the nazis in WWII – setting alight the school.

Above – the Cambridge Assessment side on the eastern side of Hills Road, with Yolande Marie Lynn Stephens (AKA Pauline Duvernay)’ Catholic Church on the other side of the road. The site is three-times the area of the Cambridge Corn Exchange. The one big challenge is the Grade II-listed old school hall. It is possible however to follow local historical precedent and move that school hall elsewhere – ideally one of the new housing estates to function as a new community hall. The precedent comes from the Grade II*-listed church across the road. Having inherited one of the biggest fortunes of her time, the widowed Mrs Lynn Stephens (formerly the French ballerina Pauline Duvernay) bankrolled the construction of the mini-Cathedral. This involved taking down Mr Pugin’s St Andrew’s Church brick by brick…and rebuilding it in St Ives, Cambs, where it still stands.

Harvey Road – where the newly-married John Neville and Florence Ada Keynes moved into shortly after their purpose-built house was completed.

You can see Harvey Road labelled on the map. Florence Ada Keynes was one of our greatest residents, who moved to Cambridge to study at Newnham College, and ended up devoting her life to our city.

Above – Cllr Florence Ada Keynes (Ind – Fitzwilliam, 1914-1918) detail from Palmer Clark, in the Cambridgeshire Collection. Colourised by Nick Harris, commissioned by Antony Carpen.

Mother of and mentor to the economist John Maynard Keynes, Florence was the first woman to serve on Cambridge Borough Council having stood unopposed in a by-election shortly after war had broken out, and shortly after she persuaded ministers to change the law removing the ban on married women standing for election to local councils. She was also our second woman Mayor of Cambridge, and chaired the Guildhall reconstruction committee, getting the current guildhall built in five years where successions of men had failed over the previous eighty.

My proposal is to name that new concert hall after her as a permanent memorial and inspiration to future generations of students, children, residents and visitors alike. Because in her lifetime, Florence at different times was all of these in Cambridge.

How can you get involved?

Let your election candidates know if you support the proposals – see by the Democracy Club.

To engage with Cambridge University directly, see here and scroll to the end.

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