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Nottingham Trent University's University Hall

22 January 20 words: Eve Smallman

Opposite Nottingham Trent University’s Arkwright building stands another striking piece of architecture. The University Hall is a brand-new venue that’s aiming to bring modern classical music and other exciting performances to both its students and to the city. We spoke to Pro-Vice-Chancellor Barbara Matthews about the making of a masterpiece, the reaction so far, and what they’ve composed for its future…

With its ornate pillars, intricate decoration and polished pews, the University Hall makes a powerful impression when walking into it. It’s bold and it’s grand, but it is also inviting and intimate. These factors make it a lovely place to listen to music, but also give clues to its previous incarnations. Locals may know it as the former Jewish Synagogue, but originally it was a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. The University has restored it to its original architecture, with only a few adjustments. 

The building is Grade II listed, so the things they could change and add were limited. But keeping the originality is all part of the beauty. “If you're upstairs you can't see everything downstairs because we don't have audiovisuals,” Barbara says. “It's very un-digital, partly because the place feels wonderfully authentic without it and also because you'd have to put screens all over the place. We're very digitally savvy in most places in the university, but this is the one place where we’ve kept it real.”

They have added a digital organ and a raised stage, which can be adjusted in size depending on the performance. All of the new changes are simply enhancements. Barbara continues: “People that know it well and who have known it previously just love the fact it is being used and that it now looks beautiful – beautifully painted, beautifully restored and beautifully polished.” 

Coming into a city that already does classical music very well, the University wanted to do something very different. “There isn't anywhere else in Nottingham that is this size – that matters both in terms of the size of an audience and economically as well. You can see amazing symphony orchestras in the Royal Concert Hall and Lakeside has lovely small spaces, but it's a middle-sized space, which means if you sell enough tickets you can have a bigger number of musicians.” The size and shape of the venue also helps enhance the performances. “The acoustics are absolutely exquisite – musicians tell us it is a true acoustic, which is apparently very rare,”  Barbara adds. “This means that the musicians on stage hear exactly what the audience hears, which isn't true in all places because of the way music reverberates.”

So far the hall has hosted two big bands. One was award-winning baroque ensemble Florilegium. The other was contemporary group the Riot Ensemble. “NTU started off as a school of art and design, and we've always had a creative, innovative way of keeping things real and out there. We wanted to host something that was completely re-imagining what classical music is – hence why we had the Riot Ensemble,” Barbara says. “One of the reviews said they had stretched the genre to places you didn't know it could go.” The group will continue to perform at the University Hall, with their first performance scheduled for April this year. “Aaron Holloway-Nahum leads them, and he's just one of the most interesting commissioners and conductors of contemporary classical music,” Barbara says. “I said to him, come and have a look at this space, and if you like it you can keep coming back here – you can educate us, but we can also give you a place where you can take some of your biggest risks.”

As well as this, one of the UK’s leading vocal ensembles Apollo5 will also be coming to the University Hall in March. NTU Music – an extracurricular group made up of students and lecturers – will also host shows there. For Nottingham Poetry Festival they have invited an international spoken word superstar, but the person in question is being kept hush-hush for now. 

It’s clear the emphasis will continue to be on high quality, allowing both students and the public to have access to world-class musicians. Barbara finishes by saying: “I'm most excited about people seeing it, suggesting things we can do it, and us just continuing to find different ways of bringing the building to life.” 

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