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Decking the hall

By Terry Joseph
November 23, 2002

Among this year's most embarrassing moments must be the imposing stature of Queen's Hall reeling from a knockout punch, its finest hour floored the minute reality stepped into the ring, for a mismatch promoters euphemistically trumpeted as an exhibition.

In fact, its image hit the deck well before the scuttling of a four-night arts festival designed to celebrate re-opening of the nation's premier concert hall after a $43 million makeover. Erroneous public perception of a massive cost-overrun was never addressed and as the project advanced, a publicity blackout added commensurate mystery.

Precisely one week before its scheduled re-opening, the National Drama Association exploded over exclusion of its discipline from the festival programme. A timely intervention by Culture Minister Pennelope Beckles precipitated the shelving of the fancy gala, that move resulting in the resignation of chairperson Margaret Walcott and withdrawal of a copyrighted script by producer Rawle Gibbon.

Mark you, a number of interesting things occurred well before that time. Boardroom sources say there was confusion from minute one. NH Construction bid some $2.7 million less than its nearest rival, yet there were directors intent on engaging another firm. When it came time to award the sound-system contract, some pointedly angled for preferred suppliers, again in the face of lower tenders.

Although glossed over by the euphoric rush to show-off the new decked out hall, first public indication of slippage came since October 30 when a media launch of Gran Z'Affaire, as the opening gala was titled, fizzled into a less-than-smooth curtain-raiser.

For the flimsiest of excuses, the launch got under way some 30 minutes late. Even so, it proceeded in the absence of the chairperson of the Queen's Hall Board/ Patrons of Queen's Hall, joint-committee or the gala's artistic and musical directors; all critical players in the very event we were invited to discuss.

Short on principals at the head table, the chair of the Patrons grouping received a sponsorship cheque from herself, the donation having come from NP Marketing, where she is a senior management official. We, however, learned that Gran Z'Affaire was "miles away" from realising its $500,000 production budget, with just 21 days to go before opening night.

Nonetheless, a slate of 65 acts was presented including several, as we subsequently discovered, who were unaware of the requirement to perform. Pianist Raf Robertson, who months ago advised of his unavailability, was still on the playbill. Brother Resistance, down for two separate roles, insisted he knew nothing of the arrangement.

Up to the time of cancellation of the gala, rapso group 3-Canal still had not been invited to rehearsals with the Brass Institute Orchestra, although they were proudly advertised as part of the opening night programme. Top drawer acts flown home for Gran Z'Affaire were simply instructed to "continue rehearsing", with no new opening date advertised.

Having specially commissioned a thematic work called "The Opening" from composer Len "Boogsie" Sharpe for the prestigious occasion, the National Steel Orchestra has been left wondering what to do with the seven-minute symphony; taxpayers now footing the bill for a piece that has already lost its relevance.

But there were even more astonishing revelations to come.

As it turns out, the much touted gala was in fact nothing but an elaborate dry-run to test the hall's technical capabilities, a virtual sound-check, for which audiences were being asked to pay for tickets, while consultants surreptitiously checked out the facility's systems.

With the veil lifted, those same experts are now boldly pursuing that task as artistes present the very performances that up to last week were expected to bring in much needed revenue from the well-heeled crowd. A "specially-invited" audience, largely comprising friends and family of board members, is therefore enjoying the frightfully expensive gala for free.

All the same, the refurbished Queen's Hall—to the extent it is ready—is pleasing to the eye. Comfortable seating with elevation to ensure uninterrupted sight-lines, calming pastel colours in the interiors, perhaps too few but nicely appointed washrooms and tastefully designed sound-deflection panelling bring a soothing ambience to The Grand Dame.

Technically, state-of-the-art electronics in control booths set behind the audience, an electro-mechanical fly gallery, a trap door onstage that will allow performers to disappear and an orchestra pit that can be lifted to three levels by hydraulic stilts also allows it to double as additional stage space.

Sadly, it is not all aesthetically pleasing. The entire yard is pure mud, with no hint of landscaping in evidence. Unplanted areas include the roundabout in front of the lobby, once the domain of a towering Christmas tree and shrubbery, the space now supposed to host a fountain, to date represented only by protruding water pipe and electrical conduit.

The Hall still needs a little over $1 million to complete ground works and erect a building to house administrative offices currently housed in the lobby, lease expiry on its former premises having failed to dovetail with the completion of works.

Like a monument to the state of works, a huge hydraulic-scoop bucket sits on the western portion of the front yard, isolated from the heavy equipment to which it was once fastened. We can only hope it does not become the permanent backdrop for continuing appreciation of what is clearly an unfinished symphony.

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