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Music for votes How an orchestra drums up vote support

Looking to the future - the Tonhalle needs renovation work


What does a world-class orchestra do when its concert building urgently needs renovation, but the project needs public approval? It takes its music to the people to show them why they should vote yes to the project. That’s what the Tonhalle orchestra in Zurich has been doing.

It’s the beginning of May, just one month before voters in the city of Zurich will be asked approve a CHF240 million ($251 million) schemeexternal link that includes the renovation of the Tonhalleexternal link building and the adjoining Congress Houseexternal link. The Tonhalle has thrown open its doors to the public, inviting them to a dress rehearsal ahead of the evening’s concert.

Lionel Bringuier, the Tonhalle’s youthful French conductor, comes onto the stage. Smiling, he thanks the public for turning out so abundantly. There will be a talk afterwards on the renovations, given by a member of the orchestra, he says.

The musicians, casually attired in jeans, t-shirts and jumpers, then get ready. As do the three soloists. The music begins. The audience watches on, attentively. 

The dress rehearsal is just one of several events at the Tonhalle inviting people to “get to know us before you vote”.external link

Music to the people

The orchestra is also taking its music out to the people, explained Tonhalle director Ilona Schmiel.

“Smaller ensembles of our Tonhalle musicians are going out to youth centres, we are also playing for many old people who can’t attend concerts any more but they are allowed to vote and they live in the city of Zurich,” she told

Going out to get votes is a new thing for the orchestra, Schmiel added, but outreach is not. It’s one of the Tonhalle’s main priorities to develop audiences.

The new concert hall foyer, as envisaged by the architects 

(ARGE Boesch/Diener)

The vote is urgent because the CHF165 million needed to renovate the two buildings involves public money – for a private project it wouldn’t be necessary, the director explained. But this is “a very prestigious project that couldn’t be done with just public money”, she said.

Both the Tonhalle and Congress House have suffered from a lack of investment during the last decades. In 2008 voters threw out a new building project for the institutions.

In addition, the Congress House foundation external linkhas amassed a debt of over CHF72 million. Voters will also be asked to approve funds to cover this on June 5. This brings, along with other smaller credits, the total sum to around CHF240 million.

Backstage and concert hall

2016/2017 season

The Tonhalle hopes this will be the last season in the old building, as journalists were told during the May 3 press conference on the 2016/2017 highlights.

These include: opening concert with percussionist Martin Grubinger and Hungarian composer and director Péter Eötvös as the Creative Chair of the Tonhalle Orchestra. Former chief conductor David Zinman will return for a concert and some teaching.

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The backstage situation in particular is bad, Schmiel explained. “There are not really adequate dressing rooms for the soloists,” she told In addition, the air conditioning, heating and the light in the concert hall and on stage need renewing, she said.

Indeed, that conditions are not optimal is well known. This LA Times review of LA Philharmonic alumnus Bringuier’s first concert as Tonhalle music director in 2014external link said the hall was “not inviting. It was hot and airless. The seats in the Tonhalle are hard as a rock”.

The renovation scheme, which if accepted would start next year, has drawn broad support from Zurich circles and the CHF240 million credit has the approval of the Zurich city parliament and government.

Only the city’s conservative right Swiss People’s Party has expressed its opposition,external link calling the whole project, “too expensive and too complicated”.

“Of course it’s a lot of money,” counters Schmiel. “But I think it’s worth investing in the future.” 

Vote in favour

On June 5 voters in the city of Zurich voted to accept the renovation of the Tonhalle and Congress House by an overwhelming 74.8%.

Work on the Tonhalle could begin soon after the last concert in summer 2017 if no objections are raised. 

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