Designing A Concert Hall With An Ear To The Future

Posted: June 21, 1987

At one point in the discussions of the Philadelphia Orchestra's proposed new concert hall, recalls consultant Walter Moleski, someone asked if a Veterans Stadium-style scoreboard might be needed.

The question was probably a bit extreme. Yet the very fact that it was asked indicates the extent to which planners are attempting to project a hall that will meet the orchestra's needs well into the 21st century.

Central to these projections is the matter of recording. The orchestra has not made a record in its concert hall, the Academy of Music, since 1969. Planning for the new hall, which is scheduled to open at Broad and Spruce Streets in the fall of 1991 (although some orchestra officials now speak privately about an opening later in the 1991-92 season), has been based from the beginning on giving concerts and making recordings in the same space.

Radio and television broadcasting, too, must be accommodated in the new hall, in the hope that up-to-date facilities will improve the orchestra's competitive position in the chase for broadcasting revenue - and suggest recording and television projects to producers who have found the Academy of Music impossibly limiting.

No one, of course, could have envisioned the rise of recordings or broadcasts in 1857, when the academy was built, and planners of the new hall face the same kinds of imponderables 130 years later. They are trying to imagine architectural responses to directions in orchestral music that could include taped electronic music, increased use of percussion instruments, laser technology and even television projection inside the hall.

These, however, are blue-sky items - serious, but secondary. At the end of such space-age speculation, conversation by the orchestra's building and design committee invariably returns to the question of recording - and to general agreement that a good concert hall will probably be a good recording hall. "Everybody, including the acousticians we have interviewed, agrees that if the hall has quality, the recording people can adapt," says Moleski, an architect who is working with the committee.

Ideally, although such a result rarely occurs, the orchestra should sound the same on record as it does in concert. Since 1969, when the orchestra recorded in an artificial and electronically altered ambiance in the Academy of Music, it has made recordings in the ballroom of the Philadelphia Athletic Club, the now-demolished Scottish Rite Cathedral, the Old Met, St. Francis De Sales Church in West Philadelphia, and (for the last three years) on the basketball court of Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. Each space has its own acoustical properties, which color the orchestra's recorded sound. The new hall, it is hoped, will promise a consistently identifiable sound.

REVERBERATION EFFECTS

But a good concert hall is not necessarily a good recording hall, cautions Moleski. His studies have shown that the reverberation time that satisfies concert listeners is slightly shorter than the time that recording engineers consider ideal. Although the difference is small enough to be largely erased by the absence of listeners in recording sessions, the planners of the new hall do not expect that to represent their only solution to the problem.

"We probably will have some system for raising and lowering baffles to give us an optimum acoustical effect," Moleski says. Such a system also would enable the orchestra to adjust the sound in the hall to permit prerecorded sound to be heard clearly through loudspeakers, to allow purely electronic music performance, and to shorten reverberation time when music for percussion instruments is programmed.

The new hall will not include a lot of recording or broadcasting hardware, according to Stephen Sell, the orchestra's executive director. "All recording companies have their preferences and will bring their own equipment," Sell says. "And the technology is changing so fast that if we decided in 1987 on installing some equipment, it would be obsolete in 1991."

INTERVIEWED EXPERTS

In developing ideas for audio, video and broadcasting production in the hall, Sell says, the building committee has interviewed the producers and crew

from EMI, the orchestra's English-based record producer, as well as the crew that tapes the orchestra concerts for weekly radio broadcasts, and television producer Clemente d'Alessio.

"From them we have developed a set of criteria for space requirements," he says. "To our relief, we learned there is no apparent conflict between the needs for a good concert space and good recording space."

Planning for televised concerts also poses few problems, Moleski says, although it could involve even the ornamentation of the new hall. "Are concerts really video events?" the consultant asks rhetorically. "Not as likely as events in an opera house. The people we consulted about television say that we will have to plan interesting design details in the hall to help them compensate for performance scenes which may be inherently uninteresting."

Few interior video production facilities will be necessary, Moleski says,

because most video production is done in a trailer outside the hall. "But we will have to build in raceways for cables so that backstage and auditorium are not cluttered with cables. Camera placement would undoubtedly be in seating areas; we would just remove seats in specific places to give the cameras eye-level views of the stage. Of course, if we go for a surround-type design, then we would have that many more camera angles possible."

The orchestra members have taken a vigorous role as advisers to the building committee; their New Hall Committee is an outgrowth of a preliminary advisory committee elected by the players to offer suggestions for facilities.

Its chairman is bass player Neil Courtney; its other members, drawn from each section, are violinist Barbara Govatos, bass John Hood, oboist Richard Woodhams, trumpeter Donald McComas, percussionist Alan Able and bass Emilio Gravagno, chosen because he heads the committee that represents the musicians in labor negotiations and dealings with management.

QUESTIONNAIRE DEVELOPED

Says Courtney: "When Walter (Moleski) started his study, we asked that the entire orchestra be involved, so he met with us all. After that, the management's artistic committee developed a questionnaire asking about our acoustical memory of halls we had played in in the last 10 years. It's hard to have acoustical memory, but when you play in a hall you like, you remember it."

Chief among the musicians' desires are better physical facilities, both for concerts and recordings. Record sessions have been difficult for the players at all the recent sites the orchestra has used, requiring costly bus travel for the players and truck loading and unloading of instruments, often under tight scheduling. Each time instruments are moved from place to place, they suffer physical changes. And when the orchestra has recorded in the Old Met and Memorial Hall, the members have shivered in sweaters, scarfs and hats

because the heating systems are noisy and must be shut off.

For the new hall, says Courtney, "we have given the building committee a list of the needs we feel are important: practice rooms, rehearsal space, more locker space, comfortable lounges. We have asked that the women should not have to climb stairs to their dressing rooms. Locker space at the academy is still too crowded, and we hope to solve that. We have also asked, since we are often in the hall in the morning and again at night, to have more practice rooms where we can work between rehearsal and concert.

FACILITIES REQUESTED

"We have asked for an exercise room, something big enough to enclose a universal exercise machine. The management has suggested lunch space in the hall, and we have agreed on the need for secure instrument storage. Another thing we are discussing is the need for good air. Backstage in the academy, we get bad air from the truck exhaust in the loading dock and from the exhaust

from the restaurant in the Academy House."

The players' participation in the planning process validates the need for a new hall, according to Courtney. "I am convinced the academy is not adequate," he says. "When (music director Riccardo) Muti began to talk about the problems, I began to go out in the hall during rehearsals. The low frequencies are poor in the academy.

"It's funny how the ear accommodates. I heard a string quartet play in the academy; it sounded distant and really unacceptable. But after a while I adjusted. It began to sound like a pretty good recording.

"I hope the new hall will have the kind of sound that will not require an adjustment. I hope it will be a revelation."

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