Concert halls are breaking out of the shoe box, but not here

Live music has a new shape coming from liberated designs and a radical rethinking of the way we experience concert-going. The Northwest decided to stay with the traditional in a recent wave of new buildings, with good results.
Crosscut archive image.

A rendering (top) of the planned concert hall in Hamburg, Germany, showing "vineyard" terracing, and Seattle's "shoe-box" Benaroya Hall.

Live music has a new shape coming from liberated designs and a radical rethinking of the way we experience concert-going. The Northwest decided to stay with the traditional in a recent wave of new buildings, with good results.

Concert-hall acoustics have not made much progress since the late 19th century, when the "shoe-box" design was first perfected in Boston and Vienna. But now there's evidence we are entering what New York Times critic Nicholai Ouroussoff calls "a golden age in concert hall design." If so, Seattle has missed the gold. The shoe box, with a long, narrow audience chamber, shallow balconies, high flat ceiling, and the orchestra in a stage house at one end, has long been thought to produce the ideal reverberation. Audience members feel the sound "bloom" as it arrives in carefully timed sequence directly from the stage, then from the side walls, and last from the ceiling. Wide chambers, like Meany Hall at the University of Washington or the McCaw Hall opera house at Seattle Center, mean that the lateral reflections are weak or arrive too late. Halls with large overhanging balconies, like the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland or Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, interfere with the ceiling reflections. Seattle Symphony's Benaroya Hall, opened in 1999, sticks rigorously with the shoe box shape and has a generally praised warm and bright sound. Acoustician Cyril Harris of New York (acoustical designer of the Metropolitan Opera House as well as the renovated Lincoln Center Philharmonic Hall) is an old-school figure who favors a "forward" sound, pushed by the speaker-shaped stage house and by his trademark wall panels that subtract certain notes by vibrating (which absorbs sound energy). The resulting sound, to my ears, is balanced, direct, moderately reverberant, and tilted toward the bright high notes of the brass. By having such shallow balconies, the hall had to be very long, so in the back seats it can seem distant. Best of all, since Harris is a stickler for sound insulation, Benaroya is truly notable in its utter quiet and velvety silence. As for McCaw Hall, remodeled home for Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet, Mark Holden was the acoustician. He kept the wide walls, for greater envelopment of sound in opera (the hall always did well for opera, much less well for symphony), and by pulling down the balcony seats along the outside walls he created an interior wall (and better sightlines) to create some interior reflections. Again, the results are very good, while not sensational. Portland, which favors historic buildings over splashy new performing arts halls, decided to fix up an old movie theater (the Schnitzer), the twin of Seattle's Paramount, and now seems to regret that economical decision. Vancouver did likewise. It may be able to use the impetus of the 2010 Olympics to build a next-generation hall. Meanwhile, the region has at least two outstanding smaller halls, Lagerquist Hall at Tacoma's Pacific Lutheran University (involving a classic shoe box and the excellent Chicago acoustical firm of Kirkegaard Associates) and the University of British Columbia gem, Chan Centre, designed with flexible acoustics by Russell Johnson of New York, with architecture by Bing Thom. Those side walls at McCaw are the best local indication of the new trend in concert halls, which is to create lots of interior walls by arraying the audience in boxed terraces all around the orchestra. The stage is pushed away from the far wall and close to the center of the hall, as famously pioneered in Amsterdam's Concertgebauw (probably the finest hall in the world), and the Berlin Philharmonie of 1963. Most European concert halls have another advantage over American ones – they are much smaller, so the sound is much more palpable. Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which opened in 2003, is highly praised and it, too, has the terraced or "vineyard" configuration. It is also on the small side, with 2,265 seats as compared to Benaroya's 2,500 and McCaw's 2,900. Disney's acoustician was Nagata Acoustics of Japan, a firm that had the advantage of building many new concert halls in the 1990s in Japan, as the country tried public works as a pump-primer for a stagnant economy. Breaking out of the shoe box created a lot of opportunities for architectural creativity as well. The new halls avoid the grand staircases and 19th century echoes and instead create complex, sculptural, voluptuous spaces where more seats are closer to the orchestra and the audience feels more relaxed and egalitarian. Seats spill down toward the stage at the heart of the space. All those interior walls, in turn, create a richer web of lateral reverberations. The new design puts the orchestra out from under its stage house and instead performing under the high ceiling of the audience chamber. This enables the sound to bloom, often quite beautifully, but the tradeoff is how well the musicians can hear each other. There is always a kind of zero-sum game between audience and musician acoustics in these halls, and conductors naturally prefer spaces where the musicians hear each other well. Benaroya manages this balance particularly well, though less so in the small Nordstrom Recital Hall, which is far more satisfying to musicians on stage than listeners in the audience. These vineyard halls now seem to be the rage, with new ones planned for Paris (designed by Jean Nouvel), Copenhagen (Nagata doing the acoustics), and Hamburg (Jacques Herzon and Pierre de Meuoron are the architects). They seem to have spectacular architecture as part of the package, as with new art museums in many cities. The combination of top acoustical and architectural firms can work well, or disastrously. In Seattle, it was decided to let the acousticians prevail, avoiding big-name or big-ego architects. In playing it safe, Seattle created two fine new musical venues and probably saved a good deal of money. Whether it jumped a little too soon and therefore missed an exciting new era of concert hall design remains to be seen. The new style might, once other cities start doing cheaper imitations, prove yet again that you can't really break out of the shoe box.


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