Reading Passage 3
What Makes A Great Concert Hall?
Think of the great concert halls in the world and some famous venues immediately come to mind: Sydney’s iconic Opera House, Carnegie Hall in New York, Germany’s Berlin Philharmonie and Tokyo’s Opera City Concert Hall. Two features stand out for each venue: the architectural lines which mark out the uniqueness of the structure, and the acoustic brilliance of each building, which elevates the sound to an almost new, ethereal, experience. But what makes a great concert hall? Is it simply a case of selecting the right location, ensuring enough seats and good sightlines, and letting the music loose? The concert hall is more than that, hosting a variety of performance genres and musical styles, so the acoustic requirements are demanding, and, as a result of years of experience, have now been lifted to a science.
However, an interesting point is raised. If the acoustics – that is, the overall sound, of the concert hall is now a science, how have some of the great concert halls of the world, which are also some of the oldest, such as Vienna’s Musikverein, where Brahms and Mahler conducted, and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, managed to capture the magic of sound before the art of acoustics had been moved to a science? What secrets did the architects and engineers of old know that enabled them to design and construct buildings that have stood the test of time in delivering the magic of music at such continuing exalted heights? A simple analysis of some of the fundamental requirements of the delivery of sound reveals that some basic understanding of acoustic requirements has long been evident and has been successfully applied in the oldest, and, indeed, also the newest, and most loved buildings of our time.
It appears that over time, as the presentation of music in a formal setting has evolved, the design of the basic ‘shoebox’ shape of an auditorium has been settled on. Earlier versions of concert halls in the form of traditional amphitheatres and fan-shaped halls suffered from poor acoustics, so, years of ‘trial-and-error’ have seen the concept of the long and narrow hall with, importantly, side sound reflectors, adapted as the best medium to deliver the optimum sound for concert-goers. Some of the key elements were recognised early on as to what was required to deliver the best sound, and among those were the need to get rid of unwanted noises, the ability to allow the orchestra to attain dynamics of sound equally, whether at a low or high volume, and to maintain a clear and somewhat equal sound throughout the auditorium.
Comparing the sound of an outdoor concert and a concert at an indoor concert hall, it can be recognised that the difference is that the outdoor sound is thin, and directional, and distant, that is, coming straight from the source, which may be some way away, whereas in a concert hall, the sound seems to surround the listener, even for those who are some distance from the source. Interestingly, after the source of the music has stopped, the sound appears to reverberate so that the listener seems to be totally enveloped by the sound, both spatially and time-wise. Inside a concert hall, the two important elements are that sound is divided between direct sound, and reflected sound – direct sound being the primary source which reaches the ear, and reflected sound that bounces off the walls and ceiling. These two sounds arrive at the listeners’ ears at slightly differing times and slightly different volumes, which add to the concept of being enveloped by the sound, often referred to as ‘surround sound’.
Once this concept was realised by the early engineers and architects of concert halls, designs were put in place to enhance these discoveries. The most important was the discovery of the ‘shoebox’ design, the rectangular, elongated shape which allowed the maximum re-direction of sound through reflectors, often hung from the sides of the concert hall, and now employed to be hung from the ceilings as well. This ensured the sound waves, known as ‘lateral reflections’, were being directed towards the audience from all angles, enhancing the sound volume and timing, and, thus, quality. Research and science have continued to more fully realize the extent of sound delivery, looking at the frequencies, both high and low, and the optimum delivery of the sound as intended by the composer and the conductor and orchestra.
Some of the great concert halls, both old and new, have incorporated the concepts of sound delivery magnificently. Austria’s Musikverein has been noted by some as the best concert hall in the world, where the quietest of sounds seem to issue delicately from the stage, while a rising crescendo completely envelops the audience from all directions. In the United States, Boston’s Symphony Hall based its shoebox design on a traditional German hall, the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, but used the then-modern physics from Harvard University to ensure that the sound would be the best possible.
In Sao Paolo, Brazil, in the 1990s, a new venue, the Sala Sao Paolo, was opened that copied proportions from the old; its width the same as Boston’s Symphony Hall, and the length and height identical to Vienna’s Musikverein, but modern technology is also incorporated, with its huge adjustable ceiling. Tokyo has the Opera City Concert Hall which, again, is based on the traditional rectangular shoebox with its two levels of side-seating, but like Sao Paolo, it has a unique feature, an enormous wood-panelled pyramid-shaped ceiling.
Finally, it is worth looking at one concert hall for some salient lessons. London’s Royal Festival Hall, a 2,900-seater, was completed in 1951, and was designed using the best acoustic science concepts of the day, intending to emulate the sound of the great concert halls. Unfortunately, it was immediately realised that the sound quality was poor, for varying reasons, with comments such as the sound being ‘too dry’ and different frequencies of sound suffering. In the 1960s, an ‘assisted resonance system’ was employed, using the modern electronics of the day, and over the next 30 years, re-modelling was accomplished, including reducing the number of seats by 400, changing the tiling and fabric of the walls and ceiling, and adding acoustic canopies. Today, with the knowledge of the science of sound, and the gathered wisdom of decades, even centuries, of construction of concert halls, the Royal Festival Hall, home of the London Philharmonic, now stands as a great concert venue, with its own unique sound contributing to the legacy of the magnificent concert halls of the world.