Sounds as Good as It Looks
is modeled on the world's few
great concert halls
by Witold Rybczynski
The story of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's new Seiji Ozawa Hall, at Tanglewood, in western Massachusetts, reads like a Hollywood movie--a movie by Frank Capra, 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 The Belly of an Architect, 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.
Of course, "the best hall in the world" is a slippery concept, since settings for music have changed considerably over time--as has music itself. Baroque orchestral music was played in small rooms that had a relatively short (less than 1.5 seconds) "reverberation time"--the length of time that sound gives the impression of lingering as a result of being reflected by hard surfaces. Short reverberation times are ideal for intimate and highly defined music. Sacred music, such as Bach's early fugues, was often written to be performed in small private chapels whose reverberation times were relatively short. Some choral works, on the other hand, were staged in larger churches, and took advantage of the more reverberative spaces. During the Classical period the music of Haydn and Mozart was performed in what were the first concert halls. Although these halls were small by modern standards, and sat only several hundred people, the reverberation times were longer than those in private chapels--1.5 to 1.7 seconds. The popularity of orchestral music during the second half of the nineteenth century brought a new generation of larger concert halls. The Musikvereinssaal, for example, opened in 1870 and has 1,680 seats. Such halls have longer reverberation times (1.9 to 2.2 seconds), with fuller tones but slightly lower definition, which complements the music of Romantic composers like Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss.
The music of the twentieth century is more varied in its demands, and any hall in which the work of composers ranging from Bach to Górecki is performed requires a compromise. Nevertheless, there is a surprising amount of agreement about which are the best-sounding concert halls. Most musicians, critics, and concertgoers would probably include not only Vienna's Musikvereinssaal and Boston's Symphony Hall but also Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and New York's Carnegie Hall. A systematic study of these and other halls is contained in the recently published Concert and Opera Halls: How They Sound, a vastly revised and enlarged edition of the now-classic study Music, Acoustics & Architecture, which was originally published in 1962. The author is Leo L. Beranek, an acoustician based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is a founder of what has become probably the world's leading firm of acoustical consultants--Bolt, Beranek and Newman.
Beranek, an amateur musician, visited sixty-six famous concert halls and ten opera houses around the world. He listened to performances, measured reverberation times, and studied blueprints. He polled concertgoers and talked to music critics. He also interviewed musicians, including Charles Munch, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Von Karajan, and Walter. Eugene Ormandy told him, "In my many years as a conductor, this is the first time anyone has come to me to ask my opinion about acoustics." Beranek accorded his top rating, "superior," to only the Musikvereinssaal, Symphony Hall, and the Concertgebouw. He described an additional six concert halls as "excellent": Basel's Stadt-Casino, Berlin's Konzerthaus (formerly Schauspielhaus), Cardiff's St. David's Hall, New York's Carnegie Hall, Tokyo's Hamarikyu Asahi, and Zurich's Grosser Tonhallesaal. The rest of the halls he consigned to lesser categories, although he was diplomatic enough not to give a detailed ranking.
Why do old halls sound better than new ones? To a large extent it is a question of shape. The Musikvereinssaal (1870), the Concertgebouw (1888), and Symphony Hall (1900) all have a shoebox shape, and so do four of the six halls in the "excellent" category. (St. David's Hall is hexagonal in plan, and Carnegie Hall is rectangular but not a traditional shoebox.) In a typical shoebox the orchestra is at one end, and the seats are on the floor and in one gallery extending along the sides and across the opposite end. Sound is reflected to the listener from the two long sides, which are about sixty to eighty feet apart, and also from the ceiling. Because the concertgoer is relatively close to the musicians, the atmosphere is intimate, visually and acoustically.
The majority of concert halls built during the twentieth century have departed from the successful shoebox formula. Why? One reason is a need for greater seating capacity; another is higher standards of comfort and safety. Basel's Stadt-Casino has only 1,448 seats. Many contemporary concert halls, especially in America, where orchestras rely more on box-office receipts than on government subsidies, approach 3,000. To bring the rear seats closer to the stage, halls have been made wider or fan-shaped. This sacrifices some of the acoustical qualities of the shoebox, especially the ability to reflect bass notes from the side walls. Audience capacity may not, however, be the main reason for the change. After all, Symphony Hall, the largest of the shoeboxes, accommodates as many as 2,625 concertgoers--about the same as Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall, which opened in 1962, and which had an untraditional shape. So perhaps architects' willful desire to reinvent the wheel is also part of the explanation.
Because Ozawa Hall was to be small --seating was not to exceed 1,200--it could follow the tried-and-true models. "The shoebox shape was identified very early," says Kirkegaard, who trained at Harvard as an architect and was the acoustician responsible for the 1989 corrections to the 1986 remodeling of Carnegie Hall. He apprenticed with Bolt, Beranek and Newman at the time the firm was struggling with the acoustical shortcomings of Philharmonic Hall. (The sound in Philharmonic Hall proved so bad that the interior was gutted and Avery Fisher Hall, a classic shoebox, was put in its place.) "The Boston Symphony musicians love their hall, and all their favorite concert halls were that shape," Kirkegaard says. On his European tour Rawn was especially impressed by the architectural presence of the Musikvereinssaal and Berlin's Konzerthaus, another nineteenth-century shoebox, designed by the great neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (and rebuilt to the original plans after the Second World War). Ozawa Hall is seventy feet wide, 140 feet long, and fifty feet high, about the same size as the Musikvereinssaal; it has two side balconies, like Symphony Hall. One feature of Ozawa Hall is unique: much of the rear wall consists of doors that slide open, permitting another 2,000 concertgoers to listen to the music on the gently sloping lawn outside, thanks to a sophisticated sound system that mirrors the hall's acoustics for the outdoor listeners.
Concert and Opera Halls concludes with three general observations: small halls generally sound better than large halls; halls built for a single purpose are superior to multi-purpose halls; and old halls sound better than new ones. These observations obviously influenced the design of Seiji Ozawa Hall. The new hall was being built as a replacement for a wooden structure called The Theatre, built in 1941 to a design by Eliel and Eero Saarinen. The Theatre had served for both opera and concert music; since 1962 it had been used only for rehearsal. The initial plan was to accommodate both types of programming. However, "as the design progressed, Bill Rawn slowly but firmly steered us to the conviction that a hall designed uniquely for concert music was the best solution," Daniel R. Gustin, the manager of Tanglewood, recalls. This avoided the complexity--and the cost--of an orchestra pit, a room for scenery, and other backstage facilities. (Some of the funding was diverted toward restoring The Theatre, so that opera can be staged there.) And, as we shall see, a concert hall can benefit from the lack of a proscenium stage.
Another lesson that old concert halls teach concerns construction. Their walls and ceilings were usually plaster applied directly to heavy brick or stone; there was relatively little wood. Massive walls sustain a low-frequency bass response, unlike hollow walls and lightweight wood paneling, which tend to reflect only the treble notes. Although the interior of Ozawa Hall has a lot of exposed wood (teak), it is confined to the seats and the balcony railings; the walls are stucco over very thick masonry, and the ceiling consists of heavy concrete coffers. The result is, as Rothstein put it in his review, "a resonant, warm space that comes to life with sound."
The enjoyment of music in a concert hall is not only the auditory result of construction, dimensions, and shape. Architecture, too, plays an important role. If the new hall is traditional in its overall internal arrangement, it is much less so in its decor: Rawn's respect for the past does not extend to the use of classical architectural language. There is no figurative ornament here, no statuary as in Symphony Hall, no caryatids supporting the balconies as in the Musikvereinssaal, no crystal chandeliers as in the Stadt-Casino. But neither is this a cold, abstract modernist interior, like the recently constructed Opéra Bastille in Paris, of which the soprano June Anderson has said, "The place looks like a gymnasium."
Ozawa Hall certainly doesn't look like a gymnasium. Some have likened it to a Quaker meetinghouse or a New England town hall. There is certainly an air of gathering here. In doing away with the proscenium that is common to so many American concert halls, pulling the stage into the main body of the hall, and in placing some of the audience beside and even behind the musicians (as at the Concertgebouw), Rawn has given concertgoers the feeling of being participants. The teak grilles that make up the balcony railings remind me of yacht gratings, and the seats, which are mainly movable chairs, recall the deck furniture on a cruise ship. If this is a Quaker meetinghouse--and there is a sense of artlessness in the unembellished forms--it is one whose frugality is tempered by hints of boating, and leisure, and summer vacations. My only quibble is that the decor is almost too refined: one misses the makeshift, camplike quality of the other buildings at Tanglewood.
The exterior shape of the building recalls Symphony Hall, except that the roof is gently curved instead of pitched and the lower flanking wings have open porches instead of solid walls. Because the main hall is brick and the structure of the porches is heavy timber (recycled from old wharves and trestle bridges), the overall effect is of an industrial building--a nineteenth-century mill, say, of the kind that one can still see in many small Massachusetts towns. That sounds unusual, but Tanglewood itself is an odd combination of urban culture and country setting, of intensity and informality.
When I visited Bill Rawn's office, in downtown Boston, he showed me one of the sketchbooks he kept during his European tour of concert halls. Now, many architects keep such visual diaries. What struck me about Rawn's sketchbook was that although it contained the usual thumbnail drawings, there were also pages and pages of written notes. Obviously he had been looking and listening, but he had also been thinking. Contemporary architecture can represent a range of qualities: refinement, excitement--even, in the case of much deconstructivist work, angst. It is rare, however, to come across an architect whose work can be described, first and foremost, as intelligent. I think this is probably what impressed the Boston Symphony Orchestra committee, and led them to make a choice that must have seemed risky at the time. A bold client, an intelligent architect, and a perceptive acoustician--that is a Hollywood script indeed.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1996; Sounds as Good as It Looks; Volume 277, No. 6; pages 108-112.