From Reconstruction to Rehabilitation: the Chamber Hall to Become Grand Again

Since the opening of the Liszt Academy in 1907 on Liszt Ferenc Square (former Gyár Street), the Chamber Hall has often had to content itself with the degrading role of the Grand Hall's "little sister". During its long history, it has been labelled "Small Hall", "Chamber Hall", and even "Theatre Hall" when it accommodated theatrical plays combined with music; officially, however, it was designated "the small music hall of the institution", even if the first and second-year students of the "opera singing department" performed their "opera nights", with attendant scenery, on its stage. These events notwithstanding, it was not typically referred to as the hall of small opera, or chamber opera.

Solti Hall (Photo: Liszt Academy / György Darabos)

 

Irrespective of its various designations and roles, the Chamber Hall had essentially remained the derided "little sister" of the Grand Hall until recent times. What was the reason for this unequivocally restrained enthusiasm? Some think it came from musicians' disagreeable past experiences, many of whom still associate the Chamber Hall with the stressful exams of their student years. But probably there was more to it than that: the performers complained about the bad acoustics, and the audience about the austerity of the milieu. However, it must be said these are not "innate" characteristics of the Chamber Hall. Both its diminished performance capacity and enjoyment value derive from two "surgical actions" – we might even say "mutilations" – that were performed on it in two phases: one intervention was aesthetic; the other, more serious one, functional.

Contemporary photographs taken at the time of the inauguration of the Liszt Academy reveal to us that a fundamental element of the Chamber Hall's architectonic unity was the two large and impressive chandeliers in the middle, which were removed (due to maintenance difficulties) in its first years of operation. This was all the more regrettable given that the two ingenious architects of the building, Flóris Korb and Kálmán Giergl, had obviously intended the chandeliers to be the main aesthetic emphasis of the Chamber Hall – much more so than in the case of the lavishly decorated Grand Hall. With the reconstruction of the two chandeliers, the architectural balance of the Chamber Hall, which has been disrupted for more than a century, will also be restored. Therefore, while the interior may indeed be described as "moderate", it is not at all "humble"; and the ambiance, besides being "pleasant and harmonious", is at the same time very elegant.

The second, functional intervention happened around 50 years later. In the archives of the Liszt Academy, there is a "staging techniques budget" dating from 27 November 1963, which was compiled by Pál Tolnay (1891-1985), the most outstanding stage technology engineer of the time. It said that – much to Tolnay's despair – the then management of the Academy, with approval from the authorities, had ordered the demolition of the Chamber Hall's "entire mechanical apparatus" – that is, its high-standard stage technology, which had been functioning impeccably for the past 60 years – because it was considered "too expensive for the small scale of the hall". To be sure, the early Kádár era did not show too much affinity for the architectural or technical achievements of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy: before long, the Socialist leadership of Budapest decreed the blowing up of the National Theatre, only a few blocks from the Academy. However, the truth of the matter is that the Liszt Academy had struggled with a chronic shortage of space for decades; now, with the elimination of the orchestral pit and the trap cellar, they could expand the area of the library; and by dividing the 17-meter-high (!) fly loft with slabs, two extra classrooms could be built.

Nevertheless, the expectations of the institution's management that the removal of the flies would result in "the improvement of the acoustics in the hall" proved to be mere illusion. In the course of the alteration, a Post Social Realist/Modernist "concert shell" (or, as the supervising acoustic expert put it, a "sound baffle room") was built into the stage area, which, besides being completely inharmonious with the Art Nouveau architecture of the hall, further damaged its acoustics. Thanks to its original proportions, the Chamber Hall has very good acoustic potential; with the current reconstruction, which far surpasses even its original capacity, the hall will not only regain its suitability for chamber operas but also become a multifaceted and popular concert venue.

There is no record of the Chamber Hall as an independent chamber opera venue in its first decades of operation, nor in the interwar period; apparently, it could only fulfil this function during the few democratic years between the end of World War II and the 1948 "year of change" that led to a complete Communist takeover in Hungary. You might well ask why, in its more than 100-year history, the Chamber Hall has been so rarely used for chamber operas, hosting instead "only" the exam performances of the university's various faculties. The answer is not far to seek: the first half of the 20th century was the heyday of Post Romanticism, which held a special fascination for the grandiose symphonic apparatus. By the time the Hungarian music scene started to embrace the now classic modern composers and their works written for chamber ensembles, the Chamber Hall had already lost its attraction and scenic potential.

In the last few decades the international opera repertoire has gone through enormous changes. The growing supply of Baroque and contemporary compositions have opened new opportunities for the students of the Vocal and Opera Department, as well as for other faculties at the Liszt Academy. The reopening of the Chamber Hall as a chamber opera venue will greatly enhance the music life of not only the Liszt Academy but of Budapest in general. In its first more than 100 years, the Chamber Hall has accommodated a plethora of musical, dramatic, literary and modern dance productions, providing significant material for the historians of these different arts to research. But for all its rich past, the Chamber Hall's truly grand time is now to begin!

Máté MESTERHÁZI

The Chamber Hall was bautized after Sir Georg Solti at 22 October 2013. The photos of the ceremony - part of the Grand Opening Gala - are to be found here.