What went wrong, and how to fix it
Christopher Blair - full time acoustician, part-time conductor, 3rd time blogger. “For me the evening can’t end soon enough. I head back to my hotel with a splitting headache triggered by the blare of the orchestra and that spot in the Mahler where a percussionist strikes a rail with a sledgehammer….There’s enough blame to go around, of course, but by now I’ve become a convenient scapegoat. My dream of a great hall and my reputation as an acoustician both appear to be going up in smoke.” - Leo Beranek, in Riding the Waves, The MIT Press, 2008
Much has been said of the famous opening of Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) at Lincoln Center and the acoustic brouhaha that ensued. But most out of the profession are unaware of the political pressures and fatally flawed design process that were the true parents of this disaster.
In December 1959, under the title “Final Design” the New York Times published a description of the approved design using architect Max Abramowitz’s sketch of a hall with no more than 2400 seats, a volume of 700,000 cubic feet, an adjustable canopy at the front of the hall, and side balconies that extended horizontally, parallel to the main floor. If only this room had been built.
Shortly after publication, several New York newspapers, particularly the Herald-Tribune, complained about the 2400-seat limit, arguing that Philharmonic Hall should contain at least as many as the 2760-seat Carnegie Hall, then scheduled for demolition. The Lincoln Center building committee, under such relentless public pressure, instructed the architect to increase the seat-count by whatever means necessary. Because of Abramovitz’ insistence that there be no direct contact between Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN) and the building committee, the acoustician never had the opportunity to debate this change.
To accommodate the increased seating the downward slope of the side balconies were sharply increased by the architect so that the two ends where actually located at different floor levels. This change effectively rendered the underside of the side balconies useless as an essential reflector of early lateral energy to the main floor. This change was only discovered by accident at BBN, when co-consultant Russell Johnson viewed some drawings sent to the mechanical team. Surely, for such a severe architectural change, the drawings would have been sent to BBN for review of the room acoustics implications. They were not.
Abramowitz and his team worked for over a year on how to make the canopy and ceiling panels look good. In the end he finally decided that the ceiling panels should extend the full length of the hall. Beranek, with the experience of designing the successful canopy at Tanglewood behind him, felt this would not work, but reluctantly agreed to the change as long as the canopy elements could be pulled up to the ceiling if necessary. Abramowitz, however, fearing the ceiling panels might bang together in an earthquake, decided, without consulting the acoustician, that the ceiling panels should be welded together as in a huge raft, rendering them un-adjustable. In addition, the contractor misread the drawings and welded the first row of fixed ceiling panels six feet lower than specified in the drawings. The still-adjustable canopy over the orchestra consequently could not be raised to a higher setting as the orchestra requested (revisit last Monday’s Adaptistration discussion) for visual reasons.
Diffusion is an essential element in concert hall design, breaking up and scattering sound in many directions, to improve distribution and remove high frequency harshness. Abramowitz intended to include the surface irregularities designed by BBN, but was overruled by the building committee faced with a large cost overrun in construction. An interior designer was hired over the objections of both architect and acoustician to hide the deletion of these surfaces. Ultimately the “solution” was to paint the walls blue and illuminate them with blue floodlights!
BBN embarked on an extensive study of the halls deficiencies using model studies and developed several solutions that would have corrected many of the hall’s most glaring deficiencies. These solutions were approved by the Board. However, after an unfortunate lunchtime meeting with Maestro George Szell (a vituperative enemy of BBN),William Schuman, then president of Lincoln Center, set aside the Board’s approval of the BBN recommendations, and appointed an advisory committee to propose alternative solutions. These solutions were implemented…and made the hall worse than before!
There have been subsequent renovations of what is now known as Avery Fisher Hall, some of them making aspects of the room worse (lowering the hard ceiling over the stage platform), more of them making it a little better. But aside from the last major renovation with acoustical design by Cyril Harris, the approach has often been piecemeal touch-ups, not really challenging basic early assumptions of how this room should work.
Some of the impediments to progress may be political as well as financial. Unlike the Metropolitan Opera, which owns its building, Lincoln Center owns Avery Fisher Hall and the New York Philharmonic is only its principal tenant. (A decision by the Philharmonic made at the very beginning of Lincoln Center that some may regret today.)
With today’s improved knowledge, there is no physical reason why a shoebox concert hall of the basic interior dimensions and volume of Avery Fisher Hall shouldn’t possess magnificent acoustics. Some of the problem lies in the presence of the third level of the side balconies, which both reflects too much early energy to the floor and effectively destroys a potentially resonant “hard-cap” in the room. In 2002, working on the room acoustic design for the Nashville Symphony in a 1:20 physical scale model, I experimented with an addition of a third sidewall shelf. No real change in volume or absorption, just geometry. The measured reverberation time dropped by almost 30% at mid-frequencies.
But one doesn’t have to rely on models. Some of the difference can be heard at full scale. In the 1990’s the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, another Cyril Harris room similar in geometry to Avery Fisher, underwent a $12 million renovation in which the front half of the third level side tiers was removed. The increase in reverberation and envelopment experienced in the hall caused by simply eliminating a reflection, some audience absorption, and creating an effective hard-cap was pronounced.
Another problem in the design of Avery Fisher Hall is the limited volume of the stage enclosure surrounding the orchestra platform. Sound levels on this stage are much higher than they should be for the orchestra to hear itself and the room response well (“forward masking” again rearing its ugly head). Experiments have been made in recent years with Mostly Mozart concerts of moving the orchestra farther out into the room. The result creates less masking and better balance of early to late energy for both orchestra and audience. This approach should make even more of an auditory improvement with larger orchestras and is worthy of additional study.
There are additional improvements that might be considered, such narrowing the room at the floor level and upgrading the wall diffusion, but I sense eyes glazing over and will stop here.
Stay tuned for future chapters in Orchestral Acoustics 101
- Chapter 4: “Beware The Seductive Model “
- Chapter 5: “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics”