Sounds as Good as It Looks

Seiji Ozawa Hall, at Tanglewood, is modeled on the world's few great concert halls.

The story of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's new Seiji Ozawa Hall, at Tanglewood, in western Massachusetts, reads like a Hollywood movie--a movie not Oliver Stone. A famous big-city symphony orchestra decides to build a new concert hall at its rural summer facility, in addition to the one where the full orchestra performs. This hall will accommodate students, serve as a summer recording studio, and, most of all, be a perfect place to hear chamber music, small ensembles, and the student orchestra. An architect must be found to create a beautiful building--one that not only looks good but also sounds good. A list of prospective architects is drawn up. It consists of the most celebrated practitioners in the country and, because this is an orchestra that believes in blind auditions for unseasoned musicians, several young up-and-comers. Finally seven architects are invited to be interviewed. (Here is an opportunity for several cameo roles. Let us cast Brian Dennehy, who was the convincing star of Peter Greenaway's, and Richard Gere, who also once wielded a T square on film.) Gruff and rumpled, handsome and Armani-suited, the architects make their presentations to the orchestra committee, displaying portfolios bulging with photographs of impressive museums, dramatic corporate headquarters, and, of course, eye-popping concert halls.

Surprisingly, one of the unseasoned newcomers is among the chosen seven. (Tom Hanks has the Jimmy Stewart role.) He is hampered by never having built a concert hall, so he shows his latest project instead--affordable housing on the waterfront. Then he makes a fervent speech about the rural site of the new hall--its landscape, its spirit, its ambiance. He talks about the kind of building he thinks the orchestra needs: open, informal, yet reflecting the intensity of the music. It shouldn't overpower the place, he warns, and he calls it a background building. (This is a fine set piece: the earnest and impassioned architect confronting the attentive but skeptical committee of civic leaders, retired businessmen, and wealthy socialites.) Finally our hero returns to his office. He is dejected. The committee appeared interested, but what chance does he have against the architectural stars?

Meanwhile, everyone on the symphony committee has his or her own favorites. The chairman suggests an informal poll, with each member writing two names on a slip of paper. When the ballots are read, there is general surprise at the discovery that only one candidate appears as the first or second choice on every single ballot: Hanks. After more deliberation the final choice is made. It is, of course, our hero. As in every Capra movie, the outcome is predictable, but that's the appeal.

The architect travels to Europe to visit famous concert halls. Together with the acoustician (Charles Grodin in the co-starring role), he develops a design. The building goes up. It certainly looks impressive, but how will it sound? After the rehearsal the musicians seem happy. It's going to be fine, Grodin says. But that prognosis is based on an empty hall--how will it sound with an audience at the opening gala? More to the point, how will it sound to influential music critics? Cut to opening night, when we see the critic for The New York Times among the concertgoers (Edward Rothstein plays himself). The music starts. The critic sits concentrating intently, his brow furrowed. He looks slightly irritated. During the intermission he gets up and moves to another seat. We start to get nervous--will this be a movie with a fashionably unhappy ending?

The next day Hanks and Grodin read Rothstein's review. "Precisely what a concert hall should be," Rothstein writes. "It is rare for a new hall to begin its career with such a mature, seasoned character." The movie ends with a reprise of the closing of the gala concert and the music of Randall Thompson's Alleluia, an unaccompanied chorus with the audience joining in. The camera pulls back from the stage, across the heads of the singing people, and through the great doors at the rear of the hall to the outside lawn, where more people sit and sprawl on the grass. As the camera rises, we see the dark silhouettes of the rolling hills on the horizon. Below us the warm glow of the light spilling out the doors identifies the concert hall. The patch of light glows smaller as the credits begin to roll.

The critical reception of the acoustical qualities of Seiji Ozawa Hall, designed by the architect William L. Rawn III, has been consistently favorable, although Rothstein did have a quibble about "too much being shaved off the top frequencies." After the first season the hall's acoustician, R. Lawrence Kirkegaard, ordered the removal of an eighth of an inch of the absorptive cellulose fiber that covered the ceiling, and the sound was judged to be improved. Such tinkering is not uncommon in a new hall. What is unusual is for the sound of a new concert hall to be so widely praised: the reaction to new halls has frequently been lukewarm if not downright hostile. It is usually the old halls that are loved and admired.

A case in point is Boston's Symphony Hall, which is generally held to be the first hall in whose design the science of acoustics played a role. It was built at the turn of the twentieth century and designed by the great architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, working in their full-blown Italian Renaissance mode and with the assistance of Wallace Clement Sabine, a professor of physics at Harvard and the father of modern architectural acoustics. The music critic for the Boston Evening Transcript was not impressed, however: after the inaugural concert he wrote that "the tone was beautifully smooth . . . but it had no life, there was nothing commanding and compelling about it." Nevertheless, Symphony Hall has become known precisely for its exceptional sound. "Even the first time that I conducted there, I was struck by its acoustics," Bruno Walter said thirty-five years ago. "It is the most noble of American concert halls." Herbert von Karajan was still more effusive, going so far as to say that Symphony Hall was better for much music than the Grosser Musikvereinssaal, in Vienna--considered by many to be the best hall in the world.

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