Concert Halls: A View From The Stage Page 3

Musikvereinsaal, Vienna:
The Musikvereinsaal is undoubtedly the most colored-sounding hall to be discussed in this article, but the glow of the sound that comes off the stage is alluring and captivating. Although the overall texture is clear and transparent, the excessive warmth gives everything a complimentary quality that musicians just love . . . even if it isn't accurate.

At first, the uninitiated performer feels somewhat isolated (you can really hear yourself in this place), and usually tends to underplay, in order to "feel" the hall and mesh with the rest of the ensemble. I personally prefer colder, more objective tonal characteristics, but the Musikvereinsaal is probably the best example of an intimate, but completely musically satisfying concert hall.

Gammage Center for the Performing Arts, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona:
Most readers probably haven't heard of this place, but they should have. Completed in 1964, the Gammage Center is the finest contemporary hall in which I have had the opportunity to perform, and may well have the best mix of superb stage acoustics, tonal neutrality, and transient response/instrumental attack of any large hall built in the twentieth century. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the consulting acoustician was Dr. Vern Knudsen. Actually, the Gammage Center (which seats 3029) is even better than Carnegie Hall in its ability to support the sound of a full symphony orchestra, and conveys the stage resonance to the audience more successfully than any other hall that I have heard. Unfortunately, there have not been any commercial recordings produced in the Gammage Center; I say "unfortunately" because this would be the perfect venue for recording of works by Mahler and Strauss.

Philharmonie, West Berlin:
Opened in 1963, the Philharmonie (home to the Berlin Philharmonic) is a successful example of radical contemporary design. In this hall, the sunken stage is surrounded by the audience, which not only gives the sonics an open, airy quality, but allows the listeners to become more intimately involved with the performers.

From the point of view of the musicians, however, this hall offers mixed blessings. The stage is very "spotty," having specific resonant and dull spots, and aural communication among the musicians is dependent on the positions of the individual artists. For example, the strings can clearly hear the winds (assuming the former are not out at the extreme edges of the orchestra), but the winds cannot often hear the strings with the same immediacy and clarity.

Even with these shortcomings, the Philharmonie is (in my opinion) one of the world's finest concert halls. It is neutral-sounding, without any obvious frequency aberrations, and affords every listener a good seat, both sonically and visually. The very wide soundstage projected to the farthest reaches of the audience is remarkable, and there is no smearing of tonal colors and instrumental attack. It is unfortunate that most of the commercial recordings produced in the Philharmonie do not do it justice.

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall, Washington DC:
It is embarrassing to admit that the hall in which my orchestra (the National Symphony) is resident is one of the least musically inviting in which I have ever played. The acoustics on the stage are impossible; we cannot hear one another, and if we do, the various reflections are so overwhelming that visual and aural signals have no relationship to one another. The spectral balance is thin, with severe peaks in the upper midrange that cause the hall to "honk" when overloaded (which occurs at much too low a dynamic level). There is no real bass response, and instruments such as contrabass, bass drum, tuba, and contrabassoon sound washed out and dull. Furthermore, the sound on the stage gives the false impression of resonance (there is none), there is no feedback from the house (something like playing outside), and the performers are placed in an artistically hostile environment for making music. As one of my colleagues stated, "playing in here has all the warmth and resonance of the city morgue."

Unfortunately, many halls of recent vintage share the cold, harsh, unmusical sonic characteristics of the Kennedy Center. Avery Fisher Hall, alias Philharmonic Hall at the Lincoln Center, New York, for example, has not fared much better (even with all its revisions); I should certainly hope that these are not examples of what we should expect in the future.

I'd like to conclude this article with a quote from a marvelous musician who was once our music director and conductor---Antal Dorati. After completing our first, depressing, rehearsal in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Maestro Dorati put down his baton and quietly stated, "Ladies and gentlemen, nothing improves the acoustics of a hall quite like a good performance."

Food for thought.