The Stoller Hall is, arguably, one of Manchester’s best-kept secrets. Tucked into the Chetham’s School of Music complex, our RIBA award-winning performance space opened in 2017 and had just under three years of trading before the global pandemic forced us to close our doors.
Designed by Mancunian architect Roger Stephenson, the Hall has been specially engineered to provide an immersive experience. Built as a box within a box, the performance space has very low noise levels and a variable acoustic system, which means audiences can truly hear, feel and almost see the music.
There’s something special about the auditorium doors closing which makes the audience feel welcome, safe and comfortable and fully immersed in the performance.
When I joined The Stoller Hall in February 2019 from The Met in Bury, I had a clear idea of how I wanted to position the venue across Greater Manchester and beyond.
For me, it’s important that The Stoller Hall is a concert space for the people of the city, open for all. I want audiences to connect with the performance, whether it’s an intimate performance or a raucous night with a stand-up comedian. I started to plan to reflect this, keeping true to our classical programme while bringing in new audiences via jazz, theatrical productions and world music.
Our last concert pre-COVID was Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Guy Johnston. Two of the greatest cello players together on one stage with a full audience, enjoying gorgeous acoustic classical and contemporary music. The gig was sold out and although we were relieved that it could go ahead, we knew with heavy hearts that we’d soon be closing the doors for an indeterminate amount of time.
Once we’d all gotten over the initial shock of closure, we regrouped. This meant a quick pivot from performing to audiences in the building to a live stream for audiences at home. We invested in high-quality, 4K-ready cameras, recording and live streaming equipment, so that we could facilitate multi-camera, pre-recorded or live-streamed events. Not only did this allow us to stay in touch with our audiences, we also supported the music industry during a time of extreme uncertainty by enabling remote performances to go ahead.
Music is universal. It transcends land borders, language barriers, and touches the soul. We knew that live-streaming concerts was a great way to stay in touch with our current audiences, as well as a way to reach new people. Our concerts were streamed to audiences as far away as Australia, Germany and The Netherlands. Locally, we ran a special stream to reach vulnerable, isolated older people in care homes across the North West at a time when COVID-19 restrictions stopped visits from friends and family.
We even had feedback from an audience member who was, at the time, in intensive care with COVID-19. They watched the live stream remotely with their family over the internet and afterwards chatted about the performance on FaceTime, which helped them feel closer to their family at an extremely difficult time.
For me, giving isolated audiences a sense of connection was one of the most important things we achieved during lockdown and I’m so proud of the team who made all of these projects happen.
During the closure period, we were fortunate enough to receive funding from Arts Council England, the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund and the local authority, which helped us to weather the storm, especially since Greater Manchester was under additional local lockdown restrictions for almost six months from October 2020 until June 2021.
We reopened on June 7, 2021, with a socially distanced show by Soweto Kinch, a British jazz saxophonist, poet, MC and rapper. Soweto performed to a sell-out crowd and the vibe in the venue was simply amazing. After months of being cooped up at home, audiences were certainly up for a good time.
Despite the recent Plan B announcements by the Government, we’re remaining upbeat at the future. We’re working with colleagues across the city to ensure that we’re keeping audiences safe, and that our messaging is consistent and clear in each venue. We also have ongoing support from the government’s Continuity Support Fund as we get back on our right financial feet again.
Next year we’re going to be launching Sounds of Nature, a series of events that celebrates the natural world and curates a musical response to the climate crisis. I don’t want to reveal too much about that right now, but we’ll be working with a range of artists from across the globe to bring some special performances to Manchester. This includes Freedom to Roam, a humanitarian and environmental project in collaboration with the Born Free Foundation and Kantos with their performance soundscape celebrating beauty in nature.
We want to use Sounds of Nature to encourage new visitors to The Stoller Hall, so they can experience the amazing atmosphere for themselves, connect with performance and enjoy being in such a special place.
And in 2022, we’ll host the first ever Manchester Guitar Festival as well as our expanding programme of live folk, jazz and contemporary music as well as family performances and stand-up comedy which will run throughout the year.
By Fran Healey, General Manager, The Stoller Hall
Main image courtesy of The Stoller Hall.