Hear, Hear! New Halls Diverge In Acoustic Designs

Testing the acoustics, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony rehearse ‘Don Juan’ at the Paris Philharmonie on their January 2017 European tour. Audience seating terraces seem to float in the larger volume. (Todd Rosenberg)
By Nancy Malitz

WESTERN EUROPE – Controlled experiments are pretty much impossible to come by for comparing concert hall acoustics. But the temptation to plunge headlong into the thicket was irresistible during the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s January tour of Europe under music director Riccardo Muti.

The CSO was the first foreign orchestra to try Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. (Rosenberg)

The repertoire involved music initially heard in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, a venue I know well, re-packaged into a series of five concerts at three new halls in three cities: Paris, Hamburg, and Aalborg, Denmark, in tight succession. All to be followed by performances of the same music in two of Europe’s oldest and most beloved spaces – Milan’s Teatro alla Scala opera house and Vienna’s shoebox Musikverein.

Chicago Symphony musicians were also keen on the opportunity: Although the orchestra is widely regarded as one of the world’s best, the acoustics of its 2,522-seat Orchestra Hall – which dates from 1904 – are problematic. I am accustomed to the slight dryness, which is almost glassy at the top, and I find there is sufficient direct sound and reverberance generally. But the players are vexed by their inability to hear each other across the stage; they must rely heavily on Muti’s restraining palm or beckoning hand.

Muti listens to the Paris Philharmonie during a rare tour tour rehearsal. (Rosenberg)

Tour music: Hindemith’s tricky Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass led off one program, followed by Elgar’s Strauss-like In the South and Mussorgsky showpieces A Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition, the latter orchestrated by Ravel. In most cities a second program was added – Alfredo Catalani’s Contemplazione (an exquisite leggiero rarity), Strauss’ Don Juan, and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.  It was the close harmony of the brasses in the Hindemith, the rhythmic unisons and voicing of Tchaikovsky’s pizzicato scherzo, and the softest passages of Bald Mountain, the Elgar, and the Catalani that proved to be the most telling.

Philharmonie: The CSO’s first stop was the elegant two-year-old, 2,400-seat, €400 million Philharmonie in Paris, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel at the edge of the city in the area formerly known as the Cité de la Musique. The acoustics are by veteran Australian Harold Marshall (recently of the Guangzhou Opera House) with additional consulting from the Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota (Walt Disney Concert Hall).

Paris placed its new concert hall at the urban-suburban boundary. (Philharmonie Paris)

Like New York’s Lincoln Center at its creation, the Philharmonie is part of a sprawling revitalization effort. From the Philharmonie’s roof you can grasp the ambition behind its positioning. The structure aims to dissolve the psychological boundary of the city’s ring road, a vast auto beltway called the Boulevard Périphérique, beyond which the suburbs beckon.

Elbphilharmonie: The second stop was an opening-week visit to Hamburg’s audacious new 2,100-seat, €800 million Elbphilharmonie, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (of Beijing’s bird’s nest Olympic stadium).

Hamburg’s instantly iconic ‘Elphi’ crowns the harbor. (Maxim Schulz-Elbphilharmonie)

Erupting upward and outward from atop a massive historic brick warehouse once used for coffee and tea, the structure sits high in the city’s watery gateway to the North Sea. The “Elphi” is a spectacular freeze frame in icy hue, instantly iconic, intended as a tourist draw equivalent to Paris’ Eiffel Tower or Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. For this project, Toyota was the lead acoustician, and he said he was eager to hear Chicago, the first foreign orchestra to give Elphi a try, before making adjustments: “They will tell me what I need to know.”

Musikkens Hus: The CSO then visited a small jewel, the three-year-old, 1,300-seat, €70 million Musikkens Hus, a lovely shoebox with fluid interior curves in the university city of Aalborg, Denmark. It was designed by the Viennese firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, known for the Los Angeles Public High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, with acoustic consulting by Arup in New York. For Aalborg, with its population of 203,000 – about the size of Tacoma, somewhat smaller than Des Moines and Rochester, N.Y., – the Musikkens Hus also functions as a school and vibrant cultural hub.

The CSO adjusted on the fly to the 1,300 seat Musikkens Hus. (Rosenberg)

There were no rehearsals in Hamburg or Aalborg; adjustments in these unfamiliar halls were made on the fly. Fresh from Paris and Hamburg, the CSO came in at full throttle to the considerably smaller Musikkens Hus, with a sound too big for the hall. The Hindemith was “brutale,” to borrow a word from Muti’s lexicon. (The hall’s about the size of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater.) By the second concert, a pleasant camaraderie between power and beauty had been achieved, and the hall fairly swooned under Don Juan’s spell.

There was more to be learned from the Paris-Hamburg comparison, because both halls are large, with variants on so-called vineyard seating that offer multiple terraces on all sides, including some seats behind the orchestra. The guiding principle is to serve a bigger audience without losing the clarity and reverberant presence that is the hallmark of the historic shoeboxes. By going up, out, and around with a terraced design, the distant seats are closer to the stage than they would be in a long rectangle; the scheme also provides more seats with good viewing angles derived through extensive computer modeling.

Acoustic designer Yasuhisa Toyota. (Michael Zapf-Elbphilharmonie)

Toyota noted that the science of acoustical design isn’t focused on improving traditional sweet spots, which are quite fine in most halls already: “If you are presented with the choice of a seat in the center of row 12, or a seat behind the orchestra looking at the conductor, which would you choose? Of course, you would choose the center – the direct sound is coming right at you.

“But what about everyone else? That is where our work is,” Toyota said. “Compared to a seat at the back of the main floor under the balcony, the option to see the conductor’s face from behind the orchestra, or to sit at the near side, will be very appealing. With new calculations we can bring people closer.” As in Disney Hall and the Berlin Philharmonie, Toyota might have added, surround seating heightens the sense of a shared audience experience, which is increasingly sought.

Elbphilharmonie’s ‘white skin’ is designed by algorithm to optimize the sound. (Zapf)

Despite their similarity in size and their use of terracing, the halls in Paris and Hamburg have significant differences. Hamburg’s stage is slightly more centered in the overall space, the space itself is a steeper bowl, and the interior walls suggest a rock cave because of the chipped,  irregular “white skin” covering every surface. The skin is assembled from 10,000 individually cut pieces of gypsum plaster, designed by algorithm, its gouges optimized for sound. By contrast, the Paris interior presents a more serenely curvilinear aspect, its elongated terraces attached to the outer walls by slender means; the terraces seem to float in the air of the larger space.

So which has the better acoustics? It may depend on your point of view. The musicians were dazzled by their two Hamburg concerts, which they performed without benefit of rehearsal. Assistant concertmaster David Taylor said it was the consensus choice as the better hall from the musicians’ perspective. Percussionist James Ross concurred: “I could hear everything all the way to the front of the stage. It’s wonderful to be in an acoustical environment where we don’t have to put our radar up. We keep in touch with the conductor always – that’s the important part. But in Chicago, at the end of a concert, we percussionists don’t get the luxury of asking ourselves whether it was a great experience. It’s more like, ‘Was I early there? Was I late there?’ We ask each other things like this all the time. It really helps if you can play with your ears. It’s very uncomfortable when you can’t.”

First listen: Muti and the CSO get acquainted with the Paris Philharmonie. (Rosenberg)

In Paris, where the orchestra was able to rehearse prior to performing, there was considerable anxiety at first. The empty hall was extraordinarily live, too cathedral-like, though to my ears gorgeous in color. Others with feet on the same ground suggested “bathroom.” Muti consulted a cell phone to check how other conductors had set up their onstage seating. He moved some musicians closer in to the center.

Flat-out magic happened in the Paris concert itself, and the transformation since rehearsal was truly stunning. The addition of thousands of bodies eliminated the too-lingering decay without taking away any of the hall’s ravishing color and elegance, especially at the sonic threshold – the extreme pianissimo range of clarinet, flute, horn, and violins. The Hindemith snapped into focus; string articulation was razor-sharp in the rapid fugue lines of the second movement. An extended viola solo by assistant principal Li-Kuo Chang was a highlight in the Elgar, so soft it seemed to come from an unseen remove in the quiet of the night.

This takes nothing from the sound of the full brass in “The Great Gate of Kiev” or the full orchestral tuttis throughout – the fortes were thrilling, rich and round. But one can hear that in other halls. It’s rarer to sense the preternatural shivers in “With the Dead in a Dead Language” that were so obscure and eerie here.  Orchestras are going to have a splendid time exploring the subtle potential of this beautiful new arena.

Terrace walls cut into the main floor at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie. (Rosenberg)

The Elphi also seemed a promising place, but more of a work in progress. There is no prior experience to draw from. No anecdotal wisdom regarding seating configurations or sweet spots. By this time next month, much more will be known. I sat in three different places during the two concerts, and I had three different impressions. The orchestra generally sounded big and clean, best from my seat in the middle of the lower balcony, where the hall felt imposing, even mighty.

But higher up in the Elphi, I had trouble hearing the softest passages. It became apparent that the orchestra couldn’t brave an extreme piano-pianissimo and still move the air in the rafters, certainly not to the intimate degree they could in Paris; “stage whispering” was more the rule. Some tweaking of the interior reflective surfaces may fix that, to diminish that sense of music happening “over there.” The greater bummer for me was the seat I had last, on the shallow main floor in what would historically have been a treasured sweet spot, just off-center at the right. Unfortunately that seat was backed against a terrace wall with no air behind it. The wall itself tilted slightly inward, and the sound of the tuba and lower brass created a ricochet, like so many metallic tennis balls.

Muti loves to caution his friends about similar imperfections at Milan’s six-ring horseshoe-shaped Teatro alla Scala, where he was music director for two decades. He jokes that listeners should really pay for two tickets in one far corner, “because they hear everything twice.” Indeed, he was all good humor as the orchestra headed into La Scala, where the CSO had not performed since 1981, with Vienna’s Musikverein to follow.

Not in the pit, but onstage, Muti and the CSO at the Teatro alla Scala. (Rosenberg)

Along with the Paris Philharmonie, the concerts in these two resplendent places were by far the best musically, and from my position in the audience the most acoustically rich and delicately sublime – even though La Scala was built for opera, with the musicians in the pit and not set up for onstage concerts. Muti knows these older halls intimately and audience expectations were extremely high in both cities: Muti conducted many orchestral concerts at La Scala until his abrupt departure in 2005, and the 75-year-old maestro is also a Vienna favorite son with a 46-year record of regular conducting.

Backstage at La Scala, a courtship renews. (Rosenberg)

Muti will once again lead the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Day concert in 2018, it was announced at the time of the tour. Meanwhile, Milan is in the middle of a full-court press to get Muti back into the opera house there. The Italian media conglomerate Corriere della Sera has embarked on a CD and DVD project that will include a release from each of Muti’s 20 years at La Scala; as a matter of urgent practicality the artistic differences that led to the maestro’s subito exit have acquired a charming vintage patina when spoken of. The turnouts in these two cities were liberally sprinkled with musical and cultural royalty – Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Chailly, Gérard Depardieu, Milan’s mayor, the minister of culture were all on hand – and the ovations were long and loud, followed by a TV and radio mob scene backstage every night.

So, yes, the excitement was over the top. And, yes, the acoustics may very well have heightened the magic of this moment, resonant as it was with memory and tradition.

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.

Gilded shoebox and acoustical benchmark, Vienna’s Musikverein hosted two CSO concerts. (Rosenberg)