Advances in acoustics, increasingly sophisticated computer modelling and a better understanding of the politics of concert hall design – how to resolve the inevitable tensions between client, architect and acoustician – have largely resolved the dichotomy between how a building looks and how it sounds.
Concert halls and opera houses are also learning how to behave better in their urban environments. The days of separating a new performance space, such as the Opera Bastille in Paris, from the city by busy roads and forbidding fortress-like facades are probably over, too. Cities, in large measure reborn by the cultural economy, are loath to invest in cultural venues that are open only for performances, and only to those who can afford a ticket. The Oslo Opera House, designed by the innovative Snøhetta firm and opened in 2008, seems to rise out of the waters of the Oslofjord. It was designed to be both architecturally striking and inviting to the general population. You don’t need a ticket to enjoy its views of the water. And skateboarders have been given rights to use part of its landscape. The new Herzog & de Meuron-designed Elbphiharmonie, rising atop an old warehouse on the waters of Hamburg, also has a public plaza, animating and giving glamour to one of the cities’ grittiest areas.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1992 – 2009
The Walt Disney Concert Hall was the main goal of my entire tenure at the LA Philharmonic, the main focus from day one. The project was up and down, came to a halt a few times, finally got going again – there was not one day during that time when I wouldn’t have thought about it, or been doing something connected with it.
The miracle or masterpiece quality of that design is that wherever you sit in the hall you never have the feeling of being far from the performers. So despite the volume, which is huge, we have the feeling that we’re not playing to an anonymous mass but to a couple of thousand individuals.
Frank Gehry was very clear that he wanted to build the perfect concert hall, not an ego trip. We also talked a lot about what the role of a concert hall should be. I was a child of the ’60s and ’70s, when the idea of the concert hall was as a shrine, on a tall site, that you’d approach as if it were a cathedral or temple. There never was the feeling of such a building being approachable or accessible, and of concert-hall music, or classical music, being part of wider life. We felt the Walt Disney Concert Hall had to be different.
I remember walking in two months after it opened and seeing a newly-wed couple having photographs taken against the hall, and a fashion photoshoot going on elsewhere, and I thought: we have become part of the fabric of LA. For a town challenged by its geography and traffic, in which most of the architecture is private, and with a complex demographic structure, I felt the Walt Disney Hall had become a symbol of the forward-looking side of LA – the one that reflects the young, dynamic side of the city.
Not to mention the beary side!
Inside and out 🙂
Walt Disney Concert Hall has windows that allow natural light into the auditorium during matinees. It’s a small detail but emblematic of the possibilities now available to designers. The hall has been symbolically reconnected to the outside world, without any loss to what most critics consider its admirable clarity and warmth of sound.
Chief acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota combined the best aspects of orchestral halls in Tokyo, Berlin, Amsterdam and Boston in a bid to provide aural warmth and clarity; the result of his endeavours is a virtually perfect acoustic that has been lauded by everyone from audience members to critics to musicians.
Geoffrey Noris, former Chief Music Critic of The Telegraph (UK)
Renzo Piano’s Parco della Musica, opened in 2002, changed the face and focus of concert life in Rome, previously based at the much smaller and acoustically inadequate auditorium on the Via della Conciliazione, just down from St Peter’s.
The three halls that make up Piano’s complex – the Sala Santa Cecilia (2800 seats), Sala Sinopoli (1200 seats) and Sala Petrassi (700 seats) – revitalised the former Olympics site north of the Piazza del Popolo. Seen from above, they have been variously likened to beetles or computer mice, but inside they are light, airy and adaptable.
Drawbacks of the main hall: no organ, a “health and safety” barrier round the gallery obscuring vision; a stage so high that the view for front stalls patrons is primarily of the players’ feet. But the natural materials of the interiors make the acoustics almost ideal and the warm colour schemes induce a sense of well-being.
Adrian Mourby, award-winning writer and producer, journalist and novelist. With a sentimental and funny streak!
The Operahuset, or Oslo Opera House, has proved a remarkably successful building, although the general view remains that there is a lot of bloom to the sound and that the overall building is more visually stunning than its auditorium. The brief to architects Snøhetta was to create a new home for Norwegian National Opera and Ballet that would be ‘accessible’.
The location, Oslo’s Bjørvika neighbourhood, was chosen because it was in need of urban renewal. The building had a subsidiary role in spearheading dockland redevelopment. Snøhetta opted for a roofline that rose from up from the waterline and the structure has been likened both to an iceberg and a stealth bomber that crashed into Oslofjord. The edges of the building can be used as a diving platform where they meet the water, and visitors can also walk up its sloping walls to the very top to admire the view. Passers-by often find themselves wandering into this fun structure without realising they have entered a concert hall.
Charlotte Smith, author
Few concert venues can boast the impressive state-of-the-art acoustic of Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall. Part of a purpose-built centre for performing arts on Marina Bay, the hall can adjust sound resonance and brightness via an ‘acoustic canopy’ of mobile reflectors above the stage and a ‘reverberation chamber’, comprising 84 computer-operated doors and flaps hidden behind its walls. It is also soundproofed, giving visitors the disconcerting impression of walking into a vacuum when empty of musicians and audiences.
With all its audio concern, one might expect the Esplanade to have less than elegant visual impact. But the sophisticated acoustic technology is all the more impressive for its seamless integration into the hall’s circular design. On the outside, two glass domes covered in triangular aluminium shades enclose the space – often described as giant insect eyes.
Michael Hammond, co-founder and Editor in Chief of World Architecture News
Ever since Jørn Utzon transformed Sydney forever with his boundary-pushing opera house in the ’60s, harbourside sites have been favourite with city planners anxious to capitalise on the wider impact of iconic architecture.
The Elbphilharmonie Hamburg is an inevitable result when engaging architects of the calibre of Herzog & de Meuron to design a concert hall on such a prominent waterside site. Drawing on their extraordinary success with London’s Tate Modern, one of the world’s most visited cultural venue, the architects have pushed further and provided a dramatic addition to the cityscape.
Accommodated inside the building are two concert halls, a hotel, restaurants, a gym and residential apartments, further morphing the traditional topology of a concert hall with the demands of a 21st century city. Between the old warehouse and the glass structure is the Plaza – a public viewing area that extends around the whole building.
Michael Hammond, co-founder and Editor in Chief of World Architecture News
The magnificent Harpa concert hall, located on Reykjavík harbourside, is unusually defined by its facade. It’s a powerful statement created by fusing the creative visions of Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and internationally acclaimed artist, Olafur Eliasson. The sparkling glazed fenestrations transform the public areas, which are now often seen as being almost as important as the performing spaces themselves.
It is probably no coincidence that although Eliasson is Danish, his parents are Icelandic, allowing the citizens of Iceland to have at least part ownership in this world-class success at a difficult time in their history.
Seen from the foyer, the halls form a mountain-like massif that similar to basalt rock on the coast forms a stark contrast to the expressive and open façade. At the core of the rock, the largest hall of the building, the main concert hall, reveals its interior as a red-hot centre of force.
Manuel Brug, Music Editor, Die Welt
Helsinki already has two halls by Alvar Aalto – the brickstone House of Culture and the Finlandia Hall, looking like a marmorial cliff. Both of them are more famous for their design than for their acoustic. It took 20 years of planning, some diplomacy and a significant budget to finally open the Musiikkitalo in August 2011.
Prominently situated between the bay, Parliament, park and National Museum, it is the new home of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Sibelius Academy.
The democratic Musiikkitalo deliberately reveals its treasures only after one actually enters the building. In the lobby huge panoramic windows look into the dark stained concert hall. Not only does the rather understated building have an auditorium with 1700 seats and five smaller halls – there are also three saunas.
The stairs and stand of the auditorium are dazzling; the asymmetrical seats remind one of jammed rafts. The big hall resonates richly, but at the same time transparently; acoustics guru Yasuhisa Toyota was involved in the planning process from the start and did a great job here, where it is all about communication and not worship.
In marked contrast to the masculine, ordered browns and blacks of Helsinki’s Musiikkitalo, Danish Broadcasting’s new concert hall in Copenhagen is assuredly female inside; sultry, curvaceous and clothed in aromatic reds and oranges. It is also spatially deceptive – a dreamlike melting of the vineyard terraces that plays as much with expected architectural biorhythms as the new Elbphilharmonie auditorium in Hamburg does.
When the Koncerthuset opened in 2009, people spoke of a disappointing acoustic, but in truth it was probably more that the orchestra hadn’t had time to get used to playing here. These days the hall sounds clear and lively, but controversies remain: its out-of-town position and extortionate cost have had repercussions throughout Denmark’s musical and broadcasting communities, but they’ll be outlived by the boldness and wonder of Nouvel’s interior.
Adrian Mourby, award-winning writer and producer, journalist and novelist
Viewed from Newcastle, The Sage Gateshead looks like a glass chrysalis abandoned on the shores of the river Tyne. This curved structure is a carapace enclosing three performance spaces, an increasingly common venue concept. The 1700-seater main hall has a warm and enveloping acoustic that offers clarity with reverberance. There’s good support for chamber orchestras yet the hall is never too loud for a large symphony orchestra. Modelled on the Musikverein in Vienna, Sage 1 has ceiling panels and curtains that can be raised and lowered to change the sound-profile of the hall.
The glass carapace makes good use of the view over the river Tyne and has made the building very popular. For too many years both Newcastle and Gateshead seemed to turn their backs on the river that had nurtured them. The Sage is a real step forward.
Michael Tilson Thomas, Artistic Director of the New World Symphony and Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony
I’ve known Frank Gehry since I was a kid and he has a great love of classical music. We had talked over the years about what a concert hall could do. In this case, the hall at the New World Centre is the campus of the New World Symphony, ‘America’s Orchestral Academy’, so the building had to reflect that with lots of practice and ensemble rooms, and places to carry on all our long-distance learning. The hall itself is small – it only seats 750 people – but it’s appropriate for serving the purposes of the Academy. There’s also a large rehearsal room and other ensemble rooms, so lots of rehearsals can go on simultaneously.
I originally knew Yasu (Yasuhisa Toyota, acoustician) back in Japan where I ran the Pacific Music Festival. We had a warm relationship, and I was able to say to him, “I want an acoustic where you can float the note but still have clarity”. When the building was opened, by design it was quite reverberant – after two months we undertook the first of several tweaks to turn it down, and I’m now very happy with it. A real test for the hall was when we performed Janacek’s Sinfonietta, for which we used the hall’s multiple stages – it was breathtaking. Soon afterwards, Jordi Savall did a solo gamba recital and it was fabulous – so intimate and focused. We have a certain control over acoustics, but that’s only necessary during rehearsals – for performances, the acoustic just adapts itself to the music that’s being performed.
The mission when we started as to encourage the fellows [students] to be music communicators. To that end, a lot of thought went into how the building looks. When you approach it, you can see through the glass and you’re compelled to go in. Once inside, you see all these fantastically shaped structures – unmistakably Frank Gehry. We’re exploring a more impulsive approach to concert-going – there are some concerts that are only half an hour long so that, if people are in the area, they can just drop in. In the same way, thousands of people come to see our concerts projected live on the screen outside the building.
The Centre has been transformative to Miami – it has created a whole new feeling of a city centre. To have this magnificent building and a park given over nearly all the time to very sophisticated things – our concerts, a whole array of video art that’s exhibited – is a wonderful thing.
The concert halls of Australia may be more famous for their defects than for their virtues, the Sydney Opera House being the iconic example of grand designs with poor acoustics. That all changed in 2009 when Melbourne Recital Centre opened its doors, eliciting praise from musicians and concert goers alike. It’s a hall everyone seems to enjoy being in. In a survey conducted by Limelight magazine of acoustics in halls across Australia, performance, critics, industry experts and audience members voted MRC best for Chamber Music and second-best overall. (Most outstanding acoustics in Australia, according to the survey, belong to the Perth Concert Hall. On the outside it may be on the ugly side, an example of Brutalist architecture, but musicians who tour nationally know that beauty and great acoustics come from within! Sydney Opera House’s 1,507-seat Opera Theatre was voted the worst of 20 major classical music venues around the country.)
Part of the MRC success is the no-bells-and-whistles shoebox shape of the main hall, which architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall modelled deliberately on the great halls of Europe – the Wigmore (London), Musikverein (Vienna) and Concertgebouw (Amsterdam). The MRC’s undulations of Hoop Pine plywood cleverly imitate the 19th century halls’ complex surfaces of caryatids, dentils, coffers and what-have-you. The only geometrical deviation from the shoebox model was made to provide sightlines for the entire audience. The principal Elizabeth Murdoch Hall (named for its benefactress) contains no proscenium, just a stage, and can extend to house orchestras (of up to 45 musicians).
The hall’s sound? Rich and reverberant with plenty of detail. The MRC has made the Melbourne public more pernickety when it comes to sound, as they now possess a truly audiophile venue. A concert venue must be a beautiful instrument in its own right; and the wood panelling of the MRC makes it sound, not just look, like one.
Original article in March 2012 issue of Limelight magazine.