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Halls, re-sounding

New concert halls and opera houses are much in the news of late, as Dallas unveiled the Winspear Opera House on Thursday and Munich remains locked in discussions about whether the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra should get a home of its own. (Much as I love both the Bavarian Radio Symphony and beautiful new concert halls, I think the answer to this question should be No, but that’s another post for another time.)

Inevitably, what comes in the wake of these discussions are questions about concert hall acoustics. I periodically get information packets from the leading concert hall acousticians: Sound Space Design and Robert Essert (who did both the Winspear Opera House and the Meyerson, also in Dallas); Acentech and Christopher Jaffe (formerly of JaffeHolden, another leading firm); Artec and the late Russell Johnson. It’s a science, it’s an art, it’s impossible to pin down, and it always seems to be open to debate. Is the Kennedy Center Concert Hall really that bad? Is the renovated Alice Tully Hall really that good?
(read more after the jump)

I found myself in yet another discussion of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall acoustics on Saturday during the Murray Perahia recital, sparked by some of my observations on Lorin Maazel’s program with the National Symphony Orchestra. At issue were the problems that ensemble seems to have in playing together, and how far the acoustics of the hall play a role in that. Not infrequently, when I write something critical of the NSO, I hear from a reader or two that I should have mentioned that musicians on that particular stage have trouble hearing each other. On the other hand, I’ve heard plenty of others orchestras on that stage sound better and play with a better sense of ensemble than the NSO often does.

The question, I suppose, is whether an orchestra’s sound can come to be influenced by a concert hall’s acoustics over the long term by the space in which they play. The famous example is the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is supposed to have developed its signature rich sound as a response to playing week after week in the difficult acoustics of the Academy of Music. So: how far is the problem with the NSO simply that it's stuck with a bad concert hall? Did the 1997 renovation change anything in the orchestra's sound? Discuss.

By Anne Midgette  |  October 20, 2009; 6:34 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , national , random musings  
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In my opinion, the 1997 renovation upgraded a terrible hall to a bad hall. The upgrade was also coincident with a general upgrade in the orchestra's playing, but whether that was due to the improved stage acoustics (which were certainly reported on at the time), upgrades in hiring, or Slatkin and the orchestra getting familiar in their second season together, I don't know.

I didn't go to a whole bunch of NSO concerts at the time (m-o-n-e-y), so probably some of the other frequent commenters on this blog have a better idea of what was going on than I do. But that's my $.02.

Clearly any number of other orchestras playing in the hall manage to compensate somehow for its deficiencies, however, and it would seem like the NSO would be better-prepared to compensate for those deficiencies than any other group, in the same way that Jason Bay has a better shot at playing the Green Monster correctly than other left fielders. Home-field advantage.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | October 20, 2009 8:44 AM | Report abuse

I thought the NSO sounded better after the '97 rennovation. But the hall is still terribly dry (very little reveberation) for my taste. I think the bigger problem with the NSO is burnout. I sense they have a great deal of trouble getting excited about playing week after week, year after year, especially standard repetorie. But given the grind they are in, I understand. Also, how do they keep their hearing? The volume levels of may pieces are (literally) deafening.

Posted by: kashe | October 20, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Of course they can be influenced. The two extreme examples are the NY and Vienna Philharmonics. The NY Phil plays in a warehouse, an overly-long rectangle with very little reverb. Over the years they've developed a style that lets them fill up the hall. It's sometimes ugly, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do. On the other side of the pond, the Vienna Phil plays in the Musikverein, one of the livest halls in the world. And the opera house is pretty live, too. They've developed a very precise way of playing, because if they don't, it gets covered up. The flip side of that is that they don't always worry too much about tone quality, especially in the woodwinds, because the hall fixes a lot of that. And the brass NEVER plays loudly.

Posted by: groundhogdayguy | October 20, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I belive both the improved stage acoustics (the hall before renovation was bad, but then, before that, the NSO played in the DAR Constitution Hall which was truly atrocious), and the presence of Slatkin contributed to the improvement of the NSO playing; hopefully Eschenbach will take the orchestra to the next level (his record in Houston, if less the one in Philly, makes me hopeful.) As for hiring, the NSO always had good musicians but often they jumped ship to one of the "big 5." Remember Roberto Diaz - and he's only one example.

Interestingly, the opening of the Kennedy Center, as well as the presence of Antal Dorati, also coincided with a period of improvement in the orchestral playing of the NSO. So for the NSO it's both the hall and the conductor.

Two more examples. One is that of the Vienna Philharmonic which proudly advertises that their unique sound is in no small part due to the fact that they play at Musikverein. I was skeptical for two reasons. First because their day (actually night) job is playing in the pit of the Vienna State Opera - though they are increasingly away from it as even Ioan Holender seemed to suggest. Secondly, because if one adds the concerts in tour with thos in other Vienesse halls such as Konzerthaus, this number easily surpasses the quantity of concerts at Musikverein. But my skepticism was eliminated once I heard them playing at the Musikverein (Bruckner 8 under Thielemann for the curious) after years of having listened to them at Carnegie Hall, which is of course an excellent hall. So yes, I reluctantly conclude that the VPO sound is indeed shaped in part by the Musikverein.

The second example is in fact Munich (for the record I believe that Gasteig should be renovated before a new hall is built, teared down if necessary.) But the Gasteig hall also shows how an orchestra be built in even less than ideal conditions. There is no doubt that Sergiu Celibidache greatly improved the Munich Philharmonic; anybody who doubts should listen to recordings to see how the orchestra sounded before him, even under a great conductor like Rudolf Kempe. One thing that Celibidache insisted and taught the orchestra musicians is how to listen to one another; sadly, this characteristic is somewhat lost today. But even in a controversial reading such as Pictures at an Exhibition, is impossible not to be impressed by the tension and the attention that each musician pays to another, even one may not agree with the interpretation. So miracles are possible even in less than ideal conditions.

And BTW, Celibidache was not always a "slow conductor", but that's for another time.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 20, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

For the VPO: "the brass never plys loud." Simply not true. The brass was very loud when Welser-Most conducted parts of the Ring at the Staatsoper (when there's a famous conductor and for premieres one can reasonably expect that the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera and the VPO to be identical; in regular nights you can have many subs as well as those in the State Opera Orchestra but not in the VPO.)

Also two years ago I remember I heard two concerts in the same day. At matinee Charles Dutoit with Martha Argerich and the Philadelphia Orchestra in Philly; Pictures at an Exhibition was the big piece. At night, at Carnegie Hall, the VPO under Barenboim, Bruckner 9. The VPO was by far the louder band.

Agree about the VPO woodwinds, though.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | October 20, 2009 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I'm just back from hearing the LA Philharmonic at the Disney Concert Hall. I heard every part of the orchestra clearly. The Kennedy Center Concert Hall does not offer the same experience, no matter what orchestra is playing.

Locally, the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore has the best acoustics, in my opinion.

But is this argument nothing more than splitting hairs? Too many of our local concerts are amplified (i.e., Wolf Trap).
Even the NSO has amplified some of its KC concerts.

Posted by: CarlosMaryland | October 20, 2009 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Why even bother with the Kennedy Center when we have Strathmore. Better programming, better hall, better orchestra-Baltimore Symphony and FREE parking. I no longer bother with the Kennedy Center and its outrageous prices and bad acoustics. Strathmore did it right!!!!!

Posted by: tkcameron | October 21, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Artec and Russell Johnson have been doing a horrible job for years. I have had to live with their work on Orchestra Hall (Minneapolis), Avery Fisher Hall, and the Kimmel Center. Each is in some way a failure. All their science fails to correct the basic truths of acoustics. You have to use decorative, classical architecture. The music has to have myriad surfaces off of which to bounce, and natural materials like wood, plaster and marble have to be used along with soft fabrics such as velvet. Classical proportions yield the best results. It is insanely simple. The problem is simply that the death-grip of modernism doesn't allow the reproduction of perfect halls like Boston's Symphony Hall. If one must stick with modernism, many small decorative shapes are easily added to any surface. What does Artec do? Stick huge cubes into the walls.

The acoustics make an enormous difference to the performer. It is a great source of inspiration, as much as the audience. The interplay of sound and space is what liberates our imagination. Even a large, dry theater is fine to play in if you have a sense of the space you are filling. Even if many older buildings are in some way imperfect, they have a personality, like an old friend, that is to be savored.

The renovation of Carnegie Hall created a new hall, but destroyed the old, which was not that great, actually. The renovation of the recital hall at Manhattan School of Music was a brilliant success. How? Classical decorative architecture!!! Now, if only they would redo Town Hall and the Kimmel Center as such. But then, Philadelphia has its own Metropolitan Opera Theater with perfect acoustics, languishing on its way to implosion.

When the Kimmel Center opened, I saw the hype machine go into full gear, I saw the pirate architect Vinoly disappear before it was over, and realized how these guys go from "success to success." It's all hype. No one wants to bring down a huge civic project. The lawsuits that recently followed two of Vinoly's projects speak volumes. Meanwhile, Philadelphia lacks a fine recital hall, still.

Posted by: barondz | October 26, 2009 9:21 PM | Report abuse

Another important function of decorative art in a hall/theater is to fill the eye and stimulate the senses. There was no experience like hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra in the Academy of Music. The gorgeous surroundings formed a perfect frame to the exquisite music. The soft sound forced the audience to be quiet and listen actively and intently. It kept the brass and strings perfectly balance. I have never elsewhere heard an orchestra where each voice or part could be heard with such clarity.
To gaze upon the decorations, the chandelier, gave such pleasure. Attending a concert in a modern box is such a bore by comparison. By attempting to say the sound of the music is all that matters, the core of character and charm and beauty is neglected by the architecture of modernism. The Merkin Concert Hall in New York was the worst hall I ever played in. Concrete. They used concrete in the Kimmel Center. It's a travesty. It is cold, and has a hard reflection. I play a note and it throws it back at me like a slap in the face and an enormous distraction. The best acoustic spaces I have performed in were Advent Presbyterian on upper Amsterdam Avenue, Avery Fisher Hall, Carnegie Hall, Church of St. Luke and The Epiphany in Philadelphia. I have never been able to peform in a place that would be the perfect environment for my harp. They are either too expensive or do not exist where I am.
And the enormous stagehands holding up the roof of the proscenium put any Teamsters to shame.

Posted by: barondz | October 26, 2009 9:32 PM | Report abuse

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