Concert Halls: A View From The Stage

When I decided to write a piece on the subject of concert-hall acoustics, I realized that almost all discussion concerning this topic is based on the viewpoint of the listener in the audience. While this is important (since the primary purpose of any hall is to bring audience and performance together), the criteria that musicians employ in concert-hall evaluation address sonic parameters that are probably not obvious to the casual listener, and may often be at odds with conclusions reached from the other side of the footlights. Some readers might feel that any discussion of concert halls has no place in a publication such as Stereophile; they may have a point, especially if their sole aim through audio is to produce sonic spectacle, rather than to recreate an artistic event. I believe, however, that there are some readers who would like to gain some insights into the specific problems and acoustical considerations presented to performing musicians, and possibly come away with some fresh ideas to incorporate in their listening criteria.

Practical Considerations:
During my preparation and research for this article, I spoke with dozens of musicians: professional symphony players, chorus members, prominent instrumental and vocal soloists, chamber-music specialists, and conductors. When asked about their priorities concerning concert halls, several initial responses (primarily from jaded orchestra musicians) addressed such mundane subjects as "Are the dressing rooms decent?" or "Is there a good cheap restaurant nearby?"

After these issues were put to rest, all participants agreed that probably the most important and significant musical features they look for in concert halls are properties that: 1) allow them successfully to aurally relate to one another on stage, without the distractions of false and irregularly delayed musical information; 2) the ability to hear themselves clearly in proper perspective, thereby enabling them to cohere musically with their surrounding colleagues (especially important in large orchestral and choral ensembles); 3) a sense of consistent resistance and "coupling" with the hall (feedback necessary for the artist to interact harmonically with a set of specific acoustics, and project into the house with a good sound); and 4) resonant (but neutral) tonal characteristics, neither overly bright nor dark, with very quick transient response to all instrumental and vocal attacks at all volume levels.

The first item listed above, the necessity of the performers to relate aurally, is probably the most important. If they cannot comfortably hear one another and maintain precise ensemble and balance, the resulting less-than-adequate performance will render further acoustical discussions superfluous. It is also important that the ratio of direct to reflected sound be very high, because the leading edges of vocal and instrumental attacks cannot be together unless the performers receive the musical information surrounding them in an accurate and consistent time frame, without varying degrees of delay.

The second item, the importance of hearing oneself in proper perspective to the other musicians, is of greatest importance in large ensembles with significant distances separating the performers, such as a full orchestra, band, or chorus. As a professional orchestra musician, buried in the woodwind section, I can attest to the importance of being able to hear myself as well as distant colleagues, so we can play together and keep a "tight"-sounding ensemble. I find that there is nothing more musically defeating than attempting to make music on a stage that provides me with a sense of aural detachment and isolation. This situation is all too prevalent (especially in halls of recent vintage), and can be likened to trying to land an airplane in dense fog without the benefit of instruments or radar. Some readers might think that aural communication between musicians is not so important, since the visual cues from the conductor should be adequate for precise ensemble---in some very poor halls this is the only way---but the vague, irregular, and often confusing signals received from the podium are not always reliable. Further, in an ensemble such as a symphony orchestra, where the surrounding sounds can be louder than one's own instrument (such as the brass section directly behind me), it is important for each musician to hear him or herself, thereby having some control over individual tone production and attack.

The third item mentioned above, the necessity of a sense of resistance and "coupling" with the hall, is more subtle and difficult to explain to the non-musician. Playing in a good, responsive hall is somewhat like driving a great automobile: it tracks every attack and nuance that the musician creates with speed and immediacy. Without some resistance to the attack, however, the performer cannot sense how his sound "loads into the hall acoustic," and therefore will not be able to comfortably "open up and play out into the house." The best concert halls always "talk to me," letting me "lean into them and feel an immediate, active response," while the worst (and there are plenty of those) make me feel like I'm playing outside, and any sound I produce just vaporizes into thin air.

Note about the author: Lewis Lipnick is Principal Contrabassoonist of the National Symphony Orchestra