State of the Arts in Saffron Walden
PUBLISHED: 17:16 21 October 2013 | UPDATED: 17:16 21 October 2013
When Saffron Hall is officially launched at Saffron Walden County High School (SWCHS) this month, it will not only be a unique first for Saffron Walden, but almost certainly for the whole of the UK.
The new, purpose-built building has cost more than £10million to create and it is thought to be the first time a state school has benefitted from such a state-of-the-art performance venue, and a donation of this size from a benefactor to enable the project to happen.
Saffron Hall was built thanks to a partnership between SWCHS and the Yellow Car Charitable Trust. Based in Saffron Walden, The Yellow Car Charitable Trust was founded in 2008 and was set up to make grants to specific projects identified by the trust as offering particular educational and social benefits. Through the charity’s support, SWCHS, as well as the town of Saffron Walden, will enjoy a new multi-million pound auditorium featuring the very latest technologies for a performance arts area.
After more than two years of hard work, the 730-seat auditorium will be officially opened on November 30 with a celebratory opening concert. International stars including Mark Padmore, Imogen Cooper and Barbara Hannigan join the Britten Sinfonia to show off Saffron Hall’s exceptional acoustics with a range of ensembles. The event will also see Saffron Hall host the world premiere of a specially commissioned fanfare created by the Master of The Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
Saffron Hall is a uniquely flexible auditorium which has been expertly designed to create an internal acoustic that can be adapted to suit the type of music being performed or to suit a particularly drama performance, all at just the touch of a button, and these outstanding facilities for music and drama will be available to both the school and the local community.
The Tooley & Foster Partnership, based in Buckhurst Hill, was commissioned by the school to lead the design work and the results have been quite breathtaking. The main reception area is designed to be divided between the use of the school and that of the auditorium. This is achieved by a folding retractable partition, which in auditorium mode is pushed back into the wall providing a single space to act as the auditorium foyer, together with the auditorium bar and corporate entertainment facility in the form of a balcony overlooking the entrance foyer.
The auditorium is designed to be used in a number of alternative configurations. In the music mode it can be arranged for orchestral and choral performances and the floor opened to create a large orchestra pit. In the theatre mode the auditorium can be arranged in the form of a traditional proscenium theatre with adjustable proscenium openings, or as a theatre in the round with part of the seating at gallery level being able to swivel round to accommodate this type of performance. In the school hall mode, the design allows for the retractable seating to be pushed back and with the orchestra pit covered to create a large, open auditoria space.
John Hartley, headmaster of SWCHS, explains: ‘Saffron Hall’s primary use will be as a school hall which will be used in the same way as you would imagine a school hall to be used, including for assemblies and examinations. But it also has the capacity to be a top-class concert venue for classical music and theatre performances, making it the first of its kind in a state comprehensive school to our knowledge.’
Alongside this everyday use, Saffron Hall aims to make Saffron Walden a home of the arts, with shows running on a regular basis and offering something for everyone. Events already planned include big names for die-hard admirers of the arts such as Britain’s talented and world-renowned pianist John Lill, who will be performing some of Beethoven’s best-loved piano sonatas. There will also be appearances by Mr Big and the sing-along family concert for children as well as rising pianist Clare Hammond.
In future years, perhaps Saffron Walden will be hosting concerts by famous musicians that have made their name as students at SWCHS. Mr Hartley explains: ‘From September 2014 we will be launching the Best 16 Music Academy as part of our already successful sixth form. Talented young musicians can come to SWCHS for their academic studies but also play their music in a superb concert venue and alongside a variety of other talented young musicians. This programme will also be supported by nationally-renowned music societies and teachers who will help us create a music development plan.’
It certainly promises to be an exciting time for Alan Broadbent, director of music at SWCHS. ‘Saffron Hall represents an opportunity for our students to regularly engage with professional musicians at a level which is probably without compare in any other state school,’ comments Alan. And there will be similar benefits for the drama students.
‘Saffron Hall provides our students with an incredible opportunity to rehearse and perform in a beautiful, professional working space as part of their everyday school life,’ adds SWCHS’s director of drama, Anna Moorhouse. ‘This is a unique facility which both the Expressive Arts team and the students feel exceptionally lucky and very proud to have the use of.’
Before the official launch of Saffron Hall, SWCHS will be holding shows in the venue. On November 28 the SWCHS Michaelmas Concert takes place before on November 29 there is An Evening of Shakespeare. Mrs Moorhouse continues: ‘The excitement is infectious and with rehearsals in full flow, the students’ ambition is to do our school, our community and the Saffron Hall proud.’