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Dec 12 / Simon

Peter the Great

Classical Music, 4/12/10

It takes chutzpah to sink £100m into a concert hall and office complex during a downturn. But for the quietly spoken Peter Millican, Kings Place is the culmination of a life’s work, and he has no regrets. As the year-long Mozart Unwrapped celebration nears, he talks to Simon Tait about the first two years of a venue that likes to do things differently.

Peter Millican is sitting by himself at a table in the King’s Place restaurant, The Rotunda. The table in front of him is empty except for a small, square brochure. He looks like he’s waiting his turn to be interviewed for a job, but with his shock of grey hair and his impish face dominated by large round spectacles he looks much more like the architect who designed this place than a candidate for the kitchen staff.

In fact, the lamb on the menu comes from the Northumberland farm Millican lives on with his family when he’s not here. He is the owner, creator and programmer of this building, the newest of London’s concert venues and an innovatory place of work and play which may become the model for others around the world.

And the small square brochure? It’s his programme for Mozart Unwrapped, the year-long celebration that takes in some of the lesser known works with added study days to expand knowledge of the composer and his work, an element of the presentation of art Millican is particularly keen on. In his foreword to the programme he coins Robins Landon’s famous quote, that Mozart’s music is ‘as good an excuse for mankind’s survival as we shall ever encounter’.

The season begins in January, the third since King’s Place opened two years ago and by far the biggest. There will be more than 40 concerts and events in the year with the emphasis, Millican says, on variety.

It seems to be a gigantic piece of arrogance: build your own concert hall and then programme all the concerts yourself when you haven’t yourself even mastered the complexities of Chopsticks on the piano. It isn’t like that. Millican has brought on as residents four chamber orchestras: Aurora, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, the Chilingirian Quartet and the London Sinfonietta which each have office space here, and know eachother socially as a result as well as musically.

‘What it has amounted to,’ Millican explains, ‘is getting each of the ensembles to curate their own bit. In effect, they’re doing what they want to do, and I’m there to sort out any clashes – there have been one or two – and if there was some things not there which I thought ought to be, I tried to include them. Like the Mass in C – it’s a big piece and there’s a cost element, and maybe the curators were being thoughtful of my budget.

‘What I want to provide is something the audience might not be expecting but which they are excited to take, and there’s nothing bigger than Mozart for doing that.

‘So this is the biggest “Uncovered” we’ve done. It’s all the works we can do in a hall our size. I want to give the audience as much or as little as they want, so we’re going in in depth.’

The most surprising offering is the Adagio for Glass Armonica in C that the Schubert Ensemble and Alasdair Malloy will play in October, featuring the tapering column of glass invented by Benjamin Franklin and composed for by both Mozart and Beethoven that is made up of a series of glass semi-circles of different sizes whose edges are stroked with a damp finger, like playing the rims of wine glasses. ‘Rarely performed,’ says Millican, ‘and just right for us. And the organ works are very interesting, we’re using the most sophisticated organ we’ve had here. Next is Brahms.

‘I didn’t intend this to be a landmark event, we did Chopin in our first year and Beethoven last time, but it is easily the most complicated programme we have devised. I knew we had to do something rather special, though, and when Levon told he wanted to do the early string quartets and quintets, it all rather fell into place. The public have really taken it on, too, it’s already selling well, and we seem to be creating a sort of family which feels at home here.’

Levon Chilingirian was the first to test the acoustic of the main hall, still wearing a hard hat because the builders hadn’t finished. ‘It’s a marvellous hall, it was exactly right, even then’, and he brought his ensemble in as first residents.

‘It’s very open here,’ he says, referring to the regime rather than the space. ‘Any musicians can come up with an idea and if it fits it’s in the programme, quite different from most venues where you’re told “we’re not doing that sort of thing this season”. It’s a unique arrangement where Peter gathers people he knows together to talk over ideas, and then invites some of them to curate.’

It’s part of Millican’s vision of creating work and leisure around art, a concept that so excited the architect, Jeremy Dixon, that two years since it opened he is still enthusiastically showing people round

‘I think art civilises life and I think places like this mean quite a lot to the people who work in the building,’ Millican explains. ‘It was always my intention to have a mix of art and office, there was never any intention to put residential or retail in, and I was very keen to put visual arts and music into it. But that’s about as far as my ideas had got before I found the place.’

He had actually bought the site, with an old Royal Mail sorting office on it, in 1999 having only just completed his first art/work building, Central Square, another former post office building but this time in Newcastle.

Millican, now 61, is not a Londoner. A Tyneside property developer, has the faintest of Scouse slants to his speech. The son of a Liverpool pharmacist, he decamped to the North East to do a business degree but on graduating became an optometrist, developing a chain of shops on Tyneside. He sold them 15 years or so ago, and found that he was a property developer.

He is modest to the point of self effacement – he’s not in Who’s Who because he has never got round to filling the form in, ‘I don’t think it’s that important, to be honest’ – and very private. He is 61, lives on the farm near Corbridge that has been the family home for 30 years, and has three adult children, a doctor and two property developers, and that has to be prised out. No names.

And it looks as if King’s Place might become a paradigm for the workplace of the future. Notwithstanding political funding cuts, trawls for philanthropy to preserver cultural life, economy switch-backs, what is happening here in a schizoid place between the bucolic Regents Canal and that monument to industrial ambition, King’s Cross Station, amounts to a prototype for how to make the best of art in a working environment. He knew this was a key site, close to a public transport cross-roads for road and rail, even before the King’s Cross development got going

The special ingredient is the public, allowed to come through whether there are concerts on or not as well as those with offices here, use the facilities, eat and drink here, and give both the building and the arts life. He has even coined a word for such a building. He calls it “a beckoning”.

His is an undue modesty. Anybody who was risk-averse would never have bought a central London site with no idea what do with it, and then spent £100m putting a concert hall/office clock on it in an economic down-turn. A green building.

For Millican is also ecologically committed. Dixon liked the idea of mixing art and work, and says that then having to make it green was ‘a bit of a challenge’. It has a unique air changing system which Millican had to loose a whole floor of office space to accommodate, and even the undulating glass the building is faced with is shaped to be heat and light catching. The engineers Ove Arup had a major problem to make the three-storey deep basement safe from flooding by the canal, but have cracked it with a box-inside-a-box solution.

In 1999, buying at the bottom of the market, Millican already knew that the site was the biggest public transport footprint in the country where cars need never be a consideration, and that it would be even more of one when the rest of the Kings Cross site development is completed. That process starts next October when Central St Martins College of Art, 6,000 students adding a new riff to his audience profile, and so much more to come in the next three years in the plan of the developer, Argent.

As you walk in, the atmosphere is a mixture of café and reading room, with people working over files and lap-tops as they nibble from plates of salad and sandwiches. Around them is art, hanging or standing, and between the bench tables and the food bar is a downward escalator well with more art.

There are nine floors to the building, three of them underground. Above are the Guardian and Observer newspapers, Network Rail, the shoe manufacturers Wolverine, the business consultancy Logica, the Esme Fairbairn Foundation and the environmental water management company Veolia, ‘a nice mix of tenants’, paying a proper rent.

Elsewhere are the offices given for minimal rent to arts organisations – including the OAE, the Chilingirians, the London Sinfonietta and Aurora. Others hot desk on short-term deals Down the escalator are the art gallery and the concert halls (450 and 200 seats respectively). Outside, where you can take your coffee beside the canal, half a dozen kids are sitting round a table drawing the William Pye water sculptures on temporary exhibition.

There is no artistic director for Kings Place, just Millican’s Kings Place Music Foundation and the curators who schedule the concerts and the rest of the entertainment outside of the Unwrapped programme – Thursday night comedy, Monday night literature, and the music is not just classical but jazz, folk and even opera.

In September there was the Kings Place Festival, an annual event of four days which is a giddying mixture of stuff from the Guardian editor talking about whatever piano-playing editors talk about to concert hall audiences, to the legendary Carthy/Swarbrick folk team reunited and the London Sinfonietta with Thomas Adès’s chamber music. And that was just the first day.

‘Getting the programme right is a balance between putting on stuff that one is pretty sure will sell and things that are intellectually interesting,’ Millican says, and after a predictably slow start the box office is moving, with tickets going at a very respectable 30,000 a year. He encourages people to feel at home here, and some come to as many as 100 concerts a year, he says, many to 30 or more.

What was highlighted by reviewers at the opening was that this is a private development, with no public funding, subsidy or lottery money whatever. Actually, the enterprise depends heavily on the subsidised sector, because most of the UK-based performers are Arts Council funded in one way or another.

It is an example of how Millican believes the ‘mixed arts economy’ can work, the private and public sectors folding together, and is a contradiction of the notion, born out of the difficulty in getting corporate funding for the heavily subsidised and lottery funded Royal Festival Hall refurbishment, that the two don’t mix. Are there lessons for the subsidised sector?

‘Funding the arts is an impossible task, to be honest,’ is how he responds. ‘I think there’s a lot of art that wouldn’t work without subsidy. We’re small, I can’t imagine trying to scale it up to do something like the Royal Opera House without subsidy. What probably works best is to have a mix, and to have some of the arts subsidised in the way it is, and some peripheral bits privately funded”. Which should be music to the government’s ears, although to his knowledge Jeremy Hunt has ever crossed the threshold, and although Ed Vaizey has ‘had a look around and seemed quite impressed’, he hasn’t asked for Millican’s advice. ‘Got enough people giving him that, I think’.

‘I think we can say it’s a success,’ Millican cautiously allows. ‘The first two years have been incredibly hard, but it’s OK now. One of the tricks seems to be making space work hard – we run conferences during the day and have quite a fast turn around with concerts in the evening. The music is still not at break even; that could take up to five years, but the gap is narrowing.’

He would change nothing, he says. None of the white knuckle decisions made before the credit crunch, the recession, the art subsidy cut, would be different. So what is the next project? ‘This is it,’ he says. ‘This is what I’ve done, this is what I’m doing.’

[Box 1]
Unpicking Mozart
‘By rethinking Mozart we reinvent him, just as he continually re-invented his own music through experimentation, modification and transformation,’ asys Professor Simon Keefe, hed of musc at Sheffield University and the author of a number of book about Mozart, including most recently The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopaedia. He is running a series of Saturday study days throughout the Mozart Unwrapped Year. All are at King’s Place, 10.30-4.30 with refreshments and light lunch, £47.50 per study day.

January 22: Understanding Mozart, portrayals, biographies, trends in reception, with Prof Keefe.
March 12: Mozart in Context, musical life in Salzburg and Vienna in Mozart’s time, with Prof Cliff Eisen.
April 16: Mozart the Performer-Composer, exploring the mind games of the performer-composer through autograph notes, with Prof John Irving.
May 21: Mozart’s Chamber Music, violinist Peter Cropper on the greatest chamber music.
September 17: Mozart’s Orchestral Music, Simon Keefe examines the symphonies, serenades and divertimenti.
October 15/November 12: Mozart’s Operas 1 & 2, their cultural and artistic contexts.
December 3: Mozart’s Sacred Music and the Requiem, the masses, their myths and legends.

[Box 2]
An 18th century acoustic
Original performances of Mozart’s work took place in private homes, though often palaces and villas with large rooms, small opera houses, cathedral and churches. King’s Place’s 400-seat Hall One approximates most closely to the environments Mozart would have performed in, says Ove Arup’s Rob Harris: ‘The aim was to capture the important characteristics of the classic historic European halls, with the shoebox design, optimum for this scale of auditorium. The entire hall, including the classic coffered ceiling, is lined with the oak veneer cut from a single 50-year-old Bavarian tree. With good sight lines for every seat, and a warm, clear, never over-brilliant acoustic, Hall One is the perfect place to rediscover Mozart,’ he says.