To Visitor’s Ears, Chicago SO’s Hall Detailed, Coherent

Orchestra Hall is home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Todd Rosenberg)
Orchestra Hall was designed by Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham and completed in 1904 at a cost of $750,000.
(Photos by Todd Rosenberg)
By Richard S. Ginell

CHICAGO – What does a good concert hall sound like? Often times, the answer is that it depends upon what you are used to. If you spend a lot of time listening to music in the same locale, you may be conditioned to the sound of that particular hall, and anything else – no matter how good or bad or indifferent it may be by objective standards – will seem off, or in some way, unnatural.

I was pondering that as I made my way toward Chicago’s venerable – some would say fabled – Orchestra Hall last week in order to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on its home turf for the first time. I had heard the orchestra live before on seven occasions – five times in Los Angeles’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Georg Solti era (1982, 1987), once with Solti in the old Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa (1987), and quite recently (2012) with current music director Riccardo Muti in Costa Mesa’s new Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. I recall how when Solti struck up the opening chords of Act I Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in that first concert in the Chandler Pavilion, heads immediately turned to each other in amazement. We had never heard such a precise, power-packed sound there before from the resident orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was accepted as unfortunate truth that no one could produce a decent bass sound in the Chandler, but here was the CSO providing plenty of it.

The view from the stage at Orchestra Hall.
The view from the stage at Orchestra Hall, home of the Chicago Symphony.

But now, in 2014, I would be coming to Orchestra Hall with a completely different frame of reference than I would have had in 1982. I have spent the last ten seasons immersed in the razor-sharp, highly-detailed acoustics of Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Philharmonic moved in 2003 after nearly four decades in the Chandler. Disney Hall has worn very well over this span from my usual seats on the Orchestra 3 level, and I’m sure that I hear music differently as a result. Moreover, the Philharmonic has improved in huge leaps since the 1980s, so when the CSO returned to Southern California in 2012, they still sounded terrific but the massive gap that once separated the Chicago crew from the Philharmonic had shrunk considerably.

Besides being nearly a century older, Orchestra Hall is configured quite differently from Disney Hall. While Disney Hall is laid out vineyard-style within an overall modified shoebox design (the “shoebox” is hard to discern from the orchestra seats; you have to go higher in order to sense its shape), Orchestral Hall’s horseshoe tiers bear more resemblance to those of Carnegie Hall. The rake upstairs is steeper, and the dome-like ceiling over the orchestra is unique in my experience. If ambience could be set to music, Orchestra Hall would be a cream-colored brightly-lit waltz of ornate Old World elegance, Disney Hall a sleek, woodsy, high-tech showpiece for the 21st century.

Both halls have their problems in the ears of the natives who live with them. In order to hear voices in Disney Hall properly, you really have to sit facing the orchestra; the vocal sound from the side seating sections is recessed and ghostly, like hearing a stereo recording with only one channel playing. Critics and musicians have been all over the lot about Orchestra Hall’s acoustics over the decades, especially after the attempt at renovation in 1997. Was there a brighter, more alive sound after the renovation, or did the architects and acousticians make things worse? Is the lower left balcony the best place from which to hear the hall, or are Rows F through K on the ground floor best? What to believe?

Riccardo Muti uses risers and keeps all violins to the left.
Riccardo Muti prefers risers and keeps all violins to the left. Other maestros differ.

At a panel discussion, “The CSO Sound – Past, Present and Future,” during the Music Critics Association of North America conference in Chicago last week, CSO assistant concertmaster David Taylor candidly noted that when conductors like Daniel Barenboim would divide the violins left and right instead of using the standard string section seating (L to R. 1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos, basses right rear), the results were “not kind to the violins.” He also prefers to perform in Orchestra Hall without risers (Muti uses risers) so that the stage acts as a soundboard, and there is still the never-resolved issue of whether or not the musicians can hear each other properly across the vast stage.

What I heard in my first immersion into Orchestra Hall from Row D, lower left balcony the night of June 17, though, was startling. The first notes of Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 came through in a dark, rich flood of sound, much darker than what I heard from the CSO only two years before in Costa Mesa, and most likely more so than it would have been in Disney. Although Orchestra Hall’s reverberation time was supposedly raised from the 1.2 seconds reported by acoustician Leo Beranek before the 1997 renovation, the sound still seemed quite dry compared to that of Disney. Yet astonishingly, it didn’t matter; the sound was so full and solid that I didn’t notice the shortage of reverberation right away. There was plenty of detail, though not of the pinpoint sharpness that you get in Disney. There was just enough bass, the drums make a solid boom whereas in Disney, they make a deep-rooted ping. The following afternoon, I heard a rehearsal of Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 on the ground floor in Row G, and the basic characteristics noted earlier changed hardly at all, even from a different perspective and with only a few dozen people in the seats instead of a nearly-full house.

Muti and the CSO achieve an extraordinarily balanced sound at Orchestra Hall.
Muti and the CSO musicians know how to make the room work for them.

Another thing I noticed was the extraordinarily well-balanced sound that Muti was able to get in this hall, which he and the orchestra presumably know as well as their own children. No one section, not even the notoriously brawny CSO brass, protruded during a truly thrilling, and at times daringly broadly-paced performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, this time as heard from the completely unobstructed perspective of Row A, Seat 17 in the lower left balcony. There was some tendency for the CSO brass to overblow in Costa Mesa two years ago but not here, not at home. They were integrally balanced with the rest of the orchestra throughout almost all of the symphony; you could feel their controlled energy just waiting to be unleashed for the coda of the finale, which blazed with all of the trademark CSO spine-tingling power.

At times, Muti hardly moved his hands at all, communicating with the eyes, eyebrows, or the subtlest of gestures to get what he wants, a throwback to Leonard Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic or one of Muti’s historic predecessors in Chicago, Fritz Reiner. This is not necessarily a privilege of old age; the young, hyper-physical Gustavo Dudamel occasionally relies on the barest of gestures in Los Angeles, too. It’s a sign of their confidence in their crews, and in their control of them and the music.

I came away from my first encounters with Orchestra Hall thinking that I had just heard the greatest live Mahler First in my experience. Whatever problems that Orchestra Hall allegedly has – and as recently as a year ago, there was another attempt to explore more renovations with consultations from Yasuhisa Toyota, who happens to be the acoustical wizard of Disney Hall! – they did not interfere with the powerful musical message that Mahler, Muti and the CSO were putting across. In any case, I found it very easy to adapt to this different sonic environment, made even easier by a great conductor/orchestra team that knows how to make this room work for them.

It would also be very instructive to hear whether other orchestras can do the same in this room. To rework an old saw, perhaps there are no bad halls, only bad orchestras.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent forAmerican Record Guide.