Arts correspondent BELLA BARTOCK solves the mystery of the vanishing grand pianos, and discovers more scandal at the council-owned arts venue
The Fairfield Halls, following its shambolic and costly refurbishment, is now an arts centre without an art gallery, with a concert hall without a concert piano.
Last night’s gala performance of “Carmina Burana” by the Croydon Philharmonic and the Docklands Sinfonia was accompanied by a grand piano that the performing choir had to rent for the night, and pay more than £1,400 for the privilege.
That was on top of the £3,540 charge by BHLive for putting on a concert in the under-used concert hall. At their supposedly discounted rate for “community events”.
According to one source at the Croydon Phil, “When making the preparations with BHLive, the choir was disconcerted to discover that Croydon’s premier concert hall still has no piano to offer choirs or orchestras. Instead, we had to hire their own.”
Before the Halls were shut down in 2016 for the bungled £67million refurbishment, as befits a leading music venue, the Fairfield did possess two Steinway grand pianos, worth around £45,000 each.
One of these was even bought through a public subscription scheme, paid for by the people of Croydon.
But on the eve of the closure, the trust which had been managing the venue flogged off these grand assets towards meeting its various financial obligations. One of the borough’s larger and wealthy private schools is believed to have got itself a Steinway at a bargain price.
When the Halls reopened to much fanfare in September 2019, under the new management of BHLive, the Fairfield was equipped with a total of nine pianos, including two grands, provided as part of a deal with a little-known piano-makers from Sevenoaks, Phoenix. Part of the deal gave the piano company naming rights to the concert hall.
The deal was one of the “innovations” for the sparkling future of the Halls, together with an exclusive corporate club bar and the needless renaming of the Ashcroft Theatre as a “playhouse”, all brought in under Neil Chandler, BHLive’s artistic director.
But like much else in this absurdist saga, the Phoenix Piano deal went sour very quickly: as soon as top-calibre musicians tried to use the instruments.
According to one pianist who attempted to play one of the Fairfield’s Phoenix grands, “They have a carbon fibre soundboard, not a wooden one. Totally counter-intuitive. Sounds like a typewriter.
“Their website describes them as a ‘piano like no other’. Quite. But not in a good way.
“The instruments use carbon hammer shanks, carbon fibre bridge caps and 3-D printed ‘D3D’ actions.”
The piano’s “action” refers to the amount of finger or hand or arm weight a player needs to depress the keys and make the hammer hit the string. According to our source, the action of the pianos which BHLive arranged to be provided for the Fairfield Halls “was so light, that if you breathe out, the scale of C Major sounds”.
The source, an accomplished international performer, told Inside Croydon that soon after the Halls reopened, with the Phoenix pianos installed, he took an opportunity to try out the grand that was placed in the Fairfield foyer for all those free lunchtime recitals that Chandler and BHLive promised.
“My colleague had suggested that I should play it, and did not tell me what instrument it was. After 30 seconds, I turned to him and said, ‘This is unplayable’.”
When the Phoenix Piano deal was announced by BHLive, Inside Croydon surveyed all the other major classical music venues in London. None of them used Phoenix Pianos. Most had not even ever heard of the make.
Our very choosy source said, “A Steinway D is the only option for concert halls. International pianists will simply not play on anything else.”
There had been negotiations with Steinway to provide a more suitable instrument for the Fairfield concert hall, but these collapsed after BHLive did a deal with Yamaha for a Saturday morning music school.
It was then that BHLive turned to Phoenix and got the “fleet” of instruments.
The Phoenix deal did not last long once covid hit. In June 2020, with the Fairfield Halls in “hibernation”, rather than keep up the payments on the unused pianos, BHLive had them returned to Sevenoaks. And so they created the situation we have today, of a concert hall without a concert piano.
As the Croydon Philharmonic Choir found to its dismay, the cost of hiring a grand piano from an outside supplier begins at around £1,000 – and even that was no guarantee of the quality required. For last night’s concert, an anonymous donor stepped forward and the choir was able to pay £1,400 to hire a top-of-the-range Bechstein for the night.
The choir found the concert more expensive than expected in other ways.
After a meeting with BHLive in February, when the choir thought all concert costs had been settled, they were dismayed to be quoted for additional charges that included £1 each for towels, £100 for first aid, £500 (plus VAT) to extend the stage and £1,250 (plus VAT) for an extra room to accommodate all the performers.
The choir turned down the towels and the extra room, and BHLive eventually waived the extra charges for first aid and the stage extension.
The difficulties, and costs, encountered by the Croydon Phil in staging last night’s event, the kind of performance which used to be a staple part of the Fairfield Halls offerings, go some way to explain the paucity of the programme being offered by BHLive. Last night, the management didn’t even bother staffing a box office for walk-up ticket sales for the performance.
As research conducted for Inside Croydon shows, across the Fairfield Halls’ three venues – concert hall, Ashcroft Theatre and “The Wreck” – only 24per cent of the available dates will see live performances between now and November.
And the toxic legacy of Brick by Brick’s shambolic “refurbishment” continues to present issues for BHLive and the performers alike.
The replacement of a 60-year-old lift near the stage door was one of the many items on the “to do” list when Brick by Brick and their contractors moved on site in 2016 for a refurb project with a budget of £30million.
Despite saddling the borough with a bill of £67million, and taking 15 months longer than promised, Brick by Brick’s works at the Halls were never properly finished. The old lift remains, not even repaired and out of action.
According to one of the choristers who performed last night, “This means that older members of choirs and companies have to go up several flights of stairs to reach the dressing rooms.
“Those with serious mobility issues were escorted to the front of house to use the regular audience lifts, and then work their way back to the changing rooms. It’s all a bit of a mess.”
Sources at the Fairfield Halls suggest that BHLive are looking in to the matter of equipping the concert hall with a concert piano once again. “But they think one instrument will do. They have no understanding of the need for practice and rehearsal uprights, along with two grands,” our source said.
“They really have no idea. BHLive needs to go.”
Croydon is London’s Borough of Culture 2023…
Read more: £67m arts centre – with no art gallery and few performances
Read more: Conflicts of interest, incomplete contracts, unlawful payments
Read more: £30m Fairfield Halls project never went to competitive tender
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at email@example.com
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- By having a comment section, we provide all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content. Details of how this works can be read by clicking here
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- Inside Croydon: 3.3million page views in 2021. Seen by 1.6million unique visitors in that 12-month period