On Wednesday, September 20 2017, Colston Hall turns 150 years old.
The hall has embraced challenge and change throughout its life. As we at Bristol Music Trust prepare for a £48.8m transformation of the hall, starting in June next year, it is a great time to reflect on our history and look forward to the future.
Colston Hall is a landmark venue and historic meeting place for the city and the South West. Built in 1867, a fine example of Bristol Byzantine architecture, it was completed to fulfil the city’s ambition for a versatile hall to host meetings and political rallies, religious events and concerts.
The hall burnt down in 1898 after a fire in a nearby clothing factory, was remodelled in the mid-1930s and then promptly burnt down again in 1945. Challenge and change indeed.
The current version of the hall opened in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. Since then, the story of music has played out on our stage as we have connected generations of artists and audiences. From legendary composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov in the 1920s to jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in the 1950s.
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Bowie, Bob Marley, Blondie, Portishead – the list is exhaustive, but, of course, what makes the story unique is the individual experiences people have shared.
It’s a place that’s dear to many.
Asking people for their memories has been eye opening – some people have been coming here for 50 or 60 years. What they treasure are the times they were moved emotionally by what they saw and heard, or came close to their idols, or even performed on the stage themselves. Live music has an extraordinary staying power – the experiences are often visceral – and there’s nothing quite like it.
Since 2011, the hall has been run by Bristol Music Trust. Our programme has expanded dramatically and we have over 500 shows here every year, as diverse as ever. Just this year we have staged the world premiere of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi 450 series, welcomed Kraftwerk in 3-D, and celebrated Bristol’s connection with sound system culture at a sold-out 5000-capacity concert with The Outlook Orchestra and a string of guests on Bristol Harbourside.
We also operate Bristol Plays Music, the city’s music hub, delivering music education across the city in schools and music centres. It’s the only music hub in the country to be based in a concert hall, which means we can offer exceptional music education experiences for young people.
But the hall is in desperate need of transformation. The 1951 auditorium is no longer fit for purpose, many parts of the building do not meet the access requirements of audiences or performers, and the less said about the backstage area the better.
Our plans for the future are ambitious. They need to be, to give Bristol the concert hall it deserves.
We want to build a world-class venue, fully accessible to performers and audiences alike, with a nationally-recognised education programme, specialising in music education for those with Special Educational Needs and disabilities.
We will be opening up our Victorian cellars for the first time in 100 years to provide educational workshops, workspace for the performing arts, business enterprises and a very special cellar venue, as well as the remodelled Lantern space.
We have also announced our intention to reopen with a new name, ending the association with merchant and slave trader Edward Colston. We firmly believe that, to be an inclusive venue that is able to engage the whole city in music education and the brilliance of live performance, this change is the right one, at the right time.
Having taken a moment to reflect and celebrate 150 years at the heart of the South West’s cultural life, we look forward to a bright future.
Louise Mitchell is chief executive of Bristol Music Trust. This article first appeared in the UK Theatre blog: www.uktheatre.org/who-we-are-what-we-do/uk-theatre-blog/celebrating-colston-hall-at-150
Read more: Colston Hall to reopen with new name in 2020