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Aberdeen Music Hall roars back into life

Aberdeen Music Hall will today throw open its doors to the public for the first time in almost three years.

The historic performance venue was closed at the start of April in 2016 following several nights of entertainment, culminating with a farewell ceilidh.

The building, which opened in 1882, has since undergone a £9 million overhaul to secure its future at the heart of the city’s cultural life.

The organ in the auditorium at the refurbished Aberdeen Music Hall.

This morning, it will burst into life once more with a huge singalong led by Fran Healey, the the front man of legendary Scottish band Travis.

Mr Healey will receive backing from the Music Hall Community Choir as he belts out one of his band’s most recognisable anthems, Sing, which reached number three in the UK charts in 2001.

A day of activities, dubbed Stepping In, will follow as people are encouraged to venture inside and glimpse the storied venue’s revamped surroundings.

The Music Hall has hosted readings from Charles Dickens, comedy from Billy Connolly and music from David Bowie over the years.

And stars have been lining up to follow in their famous footsteps now that the building is back in business.

Next weekend there will be performances from Texas and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

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Acts like Mike and The Mechanics, KT Tunstall, Papa Roach and comedian Jason Manford will follow next year.

Chief executive of Aberdeen Performing Arts, Jane Spiers, said the celebration today will shine a light on “all the talent and creativity in the north-east”.

The road to the Music Hall refurbishment

The £9 million transformation of the Music Hall was always going to be a labour of love – but it was one that posed massive and unexpected challenges along the way.

Not least of which was the shock discovery the almost 200-year-old Category A listed building was sitting on extremely poor foundations – in some places literally just sand and rubble.

The find was made as contractors started digging down to create a new basement level to expand and transform the much-loved arts venue, which reopens today.

That inevitably cost time and money and it has now emerged that set the project back at least five or six months and added more than £1 million to the cost.

“I suppose that if I anticipated anything – this being the Granite City – it was that we would hit granite,” said Jane Spiers, chief executive of Aberdeen Performing Arts.

“But to actually find sand and rubble was a shock. Having uncovered that we couldn’t just walk away from it and we didn’t want to walk away from it. We just wanted to get in there and fix it and that is what we did.”

Ms Spiers credits the contractors, Keir Construction, and architects BDP with rising to the challenge, changing the original design and performing “some amazing feats of civil engineering in order to shore up the building to be able to stabilise the foundation”.

She said everyone involved in the renovation was determined to hit the opening date of autumn/winter 2018.

“We made a promise to the city and we wanted to deliver on that promise,” Ms Spiers said.

“It’s been closed for more than two years and we’ve all missing the Music Hall in the city. We wanted it back.”

To meet the deadline an agreement was struck with Keir for APA to fit out the building in the past few weeks while the contractors were still working on it – speeding the process up by three months.

Even then, it has gone right up to the wire, with finishing touches still being carried out hours before today’s grand re-opening.

Jane said: “It has been nerve-wracking and it really has been a race to the finishing line. We were fitting out the building surrounded by joiners, plumbers and electricians – almost falling over each other.”

She said everyone on site, the contractors and APA’s own team couldn’t have been working harder, day and night.

“It’s a measure of what the Music Hall means to people. So many of the contractors and subcontractors on site have been from Aberdeen and the north-east. They know the building, they love it.

“We became a seamless team – there are no contractors or architects – just a team of people who are passionate about the project, committed to seeing it through and getting it open.”

She said the £9 million cost of the renovation is fully-funded, a mix of grants from public bodies including Aberdeen City Council which owns the building, donations from trusts and foundations, public giving and a £1.5 million input from APA’s own reserves – “not inconsequential because we are a charity”. The funding includes a £2 million loan from the council.

Ms Spiers said the fundraising drive was affected by the oil and gas downturn which hit just as the campaign was starting.

“How on earth can you go looking for investors in the Music Hall when companies in the city are making people redundant,” she said. That was really challenging.”

However, it also gave Ms Spiers one of the high points in all the ups and downs of the projects. While the sums might not be as much as they might have been five or 10 years ago, APA has been able to build relationships with firms that will invest in the charity for a long time to come.

The chief executive also praised volunteer fund-raisers – from those who have run the New York marathon to people who just put a pound in a donation bucket to help the Music Hall cause.

She said when she first walked through the door of the Music Hall as APA chief executive in 2012 she fell in love with the building, saw its untapped potential and wanted to make it the best it could be – even though she knew the upgrading of a near 200-year-old Category A-listed building in a city centre was “not for the faint-hearted”.

VIDEO: First look inside Aberdeen’s transformed Music Hall

Now, with the doors open, she believes it has a great future to look forward to in terms of concerts, events, education and a true cultural, attractive hub in the heart of Aberdeen.

“I want it to be full and busy and I want to see younger audiences, more diverse audiences and a much broader programme,” she said.

“I want us to attract top artists from across the UK to be a well-regarded concert hall on a European circuit.

“I want there to be lots more creative learning, I want to see more footfall in the city centre. All of these things and more.”

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