Orchestra proves the power and promise of Verizon Hall

Posted: December 17, 2001

Great concert halls are not born that way. They are designed, built and opened, and then coaxed, polished and aged before settling into a state of greatness.

But Verizon Hall is off to a promising start.

The Philadelphia Orchestra played its first full concert in its new home Saturday night, and it is already apparent that Verizon's general sound concept is a success. Russell Johnson, the new hall's acoustician, spent part of last week talking about the fine sound of the old Academy of Music. He even said that certain pieces might sound better in the orchestra's old hall. Let's dismiss his statements right now as gracious hogwash or clever provocations.

Whatever the case, Verizon Hall, part of the $265-plus-million Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, is acoustically superior to the 144-year-old Academy in every way. What Johnson has given the orchestra is its first-ever hometown advantage; Philadelphia can finally hear its own orchestra for the first time. Acousticians and their clients like to couch their discussions in a technical, semi-mystical jargon. But Verizon's characteristics, as they stand now, are easily identified.

That qualifier  acoustics as they stand now  is an important one. Johnson's halls are designed to be flexible. With an adjustable canopy over the stage, various sound-dampening devices, and reverberation chambers that can increase the volume of the hall by as much as 30 percent with the flick of a switch, the new hall is not one but many. The orchestra and Johnson have tinkered only slightly with the gadgets, bringing the canopy to a lower level Saturday night than it had been for rehearsals. A typical configuration may take months to calculate. For now, the orchestra is playing with all doors to the acoustical chambers closed.

But what's already clear is that the basic bones of a great hall are all there. The orchestra has resonance at home for the first time. The individual sections of the orchestra project with a one-musician-one-vote evenness. When the orchestra reaches peak volume  as it did Saturday night at the end of the second suite from Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe  the sound does not buckle. Musicians say they can hear one another.

And the 2,500-seat Verizon does what Johnson's widely praised hall at the Meyerson Symphony Center did not when the Philadelphians visited Dallas in the fall: It contributes warmth. That sound concept is among the most subjective of acoustical qualities. But here's how I define it: The sound produced by pianist Emanuel Ax on his Steinway, in Beethoven's Triple Concerto, was both refined and penetrating; the orchestra was clear and complex with overtones; the Philadelphia Singers Chorale in the Ravel, perched in seating behind and above the orchestra, were able to project their sound with an immediacy never possible in the Academy, where their spot was practically on 15th Street. All the musicians sounded like themselves, only slightly better.

There are a few kinks, and Johnson will be on site for several months offering advice. The cellos, paradoxically for a hall that roughly mimics the shape of a cello, sometimes dropped out of listening range. And despite the fact that music director Wolfgang Sawallisch has urged players not to diminish intensity amid easier playing conditions, the strings sometimes lacked richness. The question of whether the fabled Philadelphia Sound has arrived intact will have to wait  for more string-centered repertoire, and to see over time whether players sustain their methods.

The other great success of Verizon is what you don't hear. The insistent rumble of the Broad Street subway, so audible in the Academy, is not heard in the new hall, and it seems cell phones can't penetrate the hall's acoustical chamber lining and the arts center's superstructure  a very happy accident.

And now, with even interior voices laid bare, sound has nowhere to hide. In the Ravel, a previously obscured alto flute solo rose to the surface. In the Triple Concerto, this meant being able to savor colors and subtle thoughts on phrasing in Yo-Yo Ma's playing, and being able to hear all of Itzhak Perlman's rough spots. Exposed acoustics also magnifies the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts. Candy wrappers threaten to become aural grenades.

The orchestra, however, generally played magnificently. Its members could hardly have been aware of the effects they created in Aaron Jay Kernis' Color Wheel, which the orchestra commissioned for this occasion. Kernis, a diminutive red-head raised in Bensalem and now living in New York, used a few unusual instruments, including an electric bass played by Duane Rosengard, and a large, hung piece of rattling metal that might have required the involvement of the Sheet Metal Workers' union. But the work was really meant to highlight the traditional orchestra, which it did in novel ways.

Kernis manages to use color as an emotional tool in and of itself. Sure, the harmonies telegraphed what the composer meant for us to feel. But it is the orchestrations that really penetrated  from the bleak coolness of chords resembling electrical hums, to warm movie-music string passages. Kernis formed an emotional arch that was, if unpredictable, still discernible as the stuff of a heroic human journey.

Peter Dobrin's e-mail address is pdobrin@phillynews.com.

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