The Albert Hall, later Leeds Civic Theatre

This week we welcome guest blogger, Geoffrey Mogridge, who has written extensively on the history of classical music in Leeds. Here he looks at the history of the building we now call Leeds City Museum.

The central arena of the City Museum in Cookridge Street had two earlier lives. This was originally the Albert Hall, a 1500 capacity lecture and concert hall at the heart of what used to be the Leeds Institute for Arts and Science. The domed auditorium, in its pre-museum existence played a significant role in the city’s musical life.

Interior of Civic Theatre, courtesy of Leeds Children’s Theatre

The Leeds Popular Concerts and Leeds Chamber Concerts took place here in the 1880s. George Marston Haddock was an influential figure in local musical circles who promoted his Leeds “Tuesday Nights” in the early years of the 20th Century. These “popular and high class entertainments” promised “some of the world’s best artists”. Subscribers to the 1925/26 season streamed into the Albert Hall to experience Lady Constance Benson, the eminent Shakespearean actress, and Madame Tatiana Makushina, the celebrated Russian Prima Donna.

Albert Hall Concert, 1924, image courtesy of Geoffrey Mogridge

Leeds Symphony Society gave regular subscription concerts in both the Albert hall and the Church Institute in Albion Place. The touring Master Pianoforte Series featured international pianists who gave recitals at the Albert Hall during the 1934/35 season.

The post-war demand for live music encouraged Leeds City Council’s increased funding and promotion of arts in the city. The Albert Hall’s 1949 proscenium stage transformation into Leeds Civic Theatre placed it within the domain of the City Council’s Music and Civic Theatre (later Amenities then Leisure Services) Department. The Department programmed a wide range of performances in between the productions of Leeds Civic Arts Guild affiliated societies.

A total of 3 weeks of fully staged operas were produced each year by Leeds Youth Opera Group, Leeds Gilbert and Sullivan Society, and West Riding Opera. Martin Binks, West Riding Opera’s artistic director and conductor for over 45 years, notched up an astonishing tally of 222 performances of 35 operas at the Civic Theatre between 1969 and 2005.

Some of the finest musicians of the day graced the stage under the aegis of the City Council. They included the French composer and pianist Francis Poulenc with baritone Pierre Bernac; a rare UK recital given by the renowned Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman; classical guitarist Julian Bream, percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, sitar player Irshad Khan; the pianists Moura Lympany, Stephen Kovacevic, Alfred Brendel, Youri Egorov, Walter Klien, Shura Cherkassky, Michael Roll, and Kathryn Stott.

The Mozart bicentenary in 1991 was marked by three concerts from the Leeds based English Camerata with conductor and pianist Elizabeth Altman.

A young Julian Clary, folk-rock singer Roy Harper, Dame Hilda Bracket and Dr Evadne Hinge, the Cambridge Buskers, and singer-songwriter-pianist Peter Skellern all returned to the Civic Theatre “by public demand”.

Box Office, Peter Pan, May 2005, courtesy of Leeds Children’s Theatre

This story has happily continued to develop at a new civic theatre: the Carriageworks in Millennium Square opened just a few months after the old theatre closed.

To read more of Geoffrey’s articles on classical music, including Town Hall Concerts, Leeds Piano Competition and the history of Opera North, please visit our sister site – Discovering Leeds

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