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Building Concert Halls, Part 1: What makes a great concert hall?

In 2002 my company, Akustiks, was hired to design a new concert hall for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra had been playing for many years in a large multi-purpose theater under the direction of Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn. Increasing difficulties in scheduling the theater to accommodate what was becoming a full-time orchestra in part led to the realization that if the orchestra was to reach its potential, a new home would be needed.

Another factor was the quality of sound in the old theater. When the orchestra first went on tour to Carnegie Hall, 1000 members of the Nashville community also went along. What they heard astonished them. These people had attended the orchestra’s concerts for years, but, because of the theater’s acoustics, they really had no idea just how good an ensemble the orchestra had become. Strong public support for a new hall literally began that night, and money was quickly raised for the effort.

Early in the design process, Akustiks led a small group consisting of the architect, theater consultant, construction management, orchestra leadership and financial backers on a tour of highly regarded concert halls in Europe. After a Sunday afternoon concert in Vienna’s Musikvereinssaal, one of the participants, the leader of the construction management team, was heard to say: “Now, I get it!  In our old hall I was an observer of the orchestra’s performance. In a hall like this I feel like I am a ‘participant’ in the performance!”

Obviously the gentleman was not actually playing the music, but the comment goes to the heart of the concert experience. A great concert is more than just a fine orchestra playing great music. That experience is much more conveniently acquired by listening to a CD or download at home (or in your car on the way to work). A great concert comes from a shared musical and communal experience between orchestra and audience that can happen only in the moment, never in quite the same way again.

What are some common design features that help in creating the optimal environment for this experience to happen?

FACES

It is said that we take in 85% of our sensory perception through our eyes. An intimate physical relationship is important to create visual connections between audience and orchestra. The ability to see faces of the performers and the emotions expressed upon them can certainly influence how we perceive their performance.

The positioning of orchestra and audience also is a factor in the experience. Placing an orchestra at one end of a room with the audience all facing the platform is a common approach to concert hall design. While visual communication between orchestra and audience is maintained, there may still be sensed a separation between performer and observer.

The orchestra sees the audience…the audience sees the orchestra. So what element is missing?

How about the audience seeing the audience? Placing a portion of the audience on the side walls of the auditorium and around the orchestra platform, not only puts people closer to the performers but also creates a sense of community…the shared experience.

ARCHITECTURE

The communal experience is further enhanced when the performance occurs in a special place. Concert halls are rarely fully darkened during performances. This affords the opportunity for the audience to take in their surroundings, both audience and architecture, as well as the performance.

The hall itself is only part of the architect’s task. The procession from entrance, through public areas, to concert hall…. all should build to the sense of occasion, of expectation.

Expectations are very powerful catalysts in creation of memorable concerts. If the experience before the first note sounds prepares you to expect the exceptional, you are more likely to recognize the exceptional as it occurs.

SOUND

The visual experience is thus very important and it is principally what the news media will comment about prior to a hall’s opening. But on opening night the dominant question will be “how does it sound?”

There are actually two aspects to this question. The sound experienced by the audience will sometimes be commented upon in the news media by a few expert commentators on hand for the occasion, experienced in listening in many important concert rooms. They may use comparative technical attributes of the sound such as “loudness”, “envelopment”, “blend”, “reverberance”, “clarity” and “silence” in their narrative, but more often they will simply comment on the impact of the performance itself upon the audience.

Critics with this level of expertise are becoming increasingly rare in some countries, particularly in the USA where newspapers are cutting and consolidating staff in their entertainment divisions. There are, however, other sound experts involved in each orchestra performance: the musicians themselves. Their opinion is more likely to have long term importance in the assessment of a halls acoustical reputation.

The concert hall is, after all, the instrument that all the musicians in the orchestra “play”. And just like an instrument that is tucked under the chin, blown through a mouthpiece, or struck with a mallet, every hall gives back to the musician its own sonic personality.

In the best cases, the room gently “pushes back” to the platform with well blended late energy, providing essential diagnostic information on ensemble balance and intonation, while letting the players know that their efforts are reaching the farthest seats, even in pianissimo passages. In a room like this the players can truly relax and focus on expression.

In less good halls, this late return may be weak or non-existent. The musicians on stage may feel like they have to force their sound to be heard, even if this is not really the case in the audience seating. The results in a hall like this are often harsh, unblended, and out of tune.

ACOUSTIC FLEXIBILITY

One of the questions I am most often asked by conductors concerns acoustic adjustability. In this they are usually not speaking of routine techniques of introducing acoustic absorption into a room to make the sound during rehearsal closer to concert conditions or to accommodate amplified events. Instead they refer to large changes in room geometry to accommodate different styles of repertoire.

Many conductors are vehemently opposed to this idea, saying they prefer a static acoustic condition and will adjust the orchestra playing to suit the repertoire. Others will point out that the silences in, for example,  Bruckner’s 5th  Symphony or Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor are meant to be filled with slow cathedral-like reverberant decay of sound, and that a room meeting the clarity requirements of a Mozart Piano Concerto or a Bach cantata simply can’t deliver the same experience.

I have designed both types of spaces and certainly respect both musical opinions. However, sometimes I think adjustable halls receive criticism not only because of their increased costs, but because they are sometimes allowed to be too flexible, and the users become overwhelmed with options. When this happens, generally one setting becomes the norm and the impression becomes “we just spent a lot of money on movable walls and ceilings that no longer move”.

Yet, if you think about it, the same conductors who prefer a static condition often travel with their ensemble on tour, and will  tell you “how great this piece sounded in Hall ‘A’” and “wasn’t that piece fabulous in Hall ‘B’!”. Well, if you were able to effectively create Hall “A”, Hall “B”, and maybe even “Hall C”  in one location, and the acoustic differences of each Hall were obvious to the ear, might that not be interesting?

4 Responses to Building Concert Halls, Part 1: What makes a great concert hall?

  1. Dick Campbell December 15, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

    Nice job Chris -

  2. Harvester August 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    I have a question. What sizes are the best for these Concert Halls? Are they ok if you make them as a dinner theatre? Whats the requirements? I’m new to the details of these.

    • Chris Blair August 3, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

      The first is a complicated question as you need to balance the power of the orchestra with room volume to avoid ear-generated harshness that can arise while listening to loud sound levels. For hall occupancies of 1500 to 2000 people this is not usually a big problem as the volumes to create reverberation times of about 2.0 seconds (a common reference point) are large enough to avoid this auditory effect with good hall shaping. For smaller rooms,however, it is sometimes necessary to throw some energy away to avoid this problem.

      Your second question is easier: it would be possible to accommodate dinner theater and concert music in a well designed room with appropriate acoustical adjustment devices. Hope this helps.

  3. mark dingal August 20, 2013 at 2:47 am #

    can i have a space allocation for a concert hall sir blair? thanks.

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