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For a couple of decades, the nation’s orchestra community has considered (and studied) what should happen to make the art form more relevant to a changing audience. As a fascinating architecture review in Sunday’s Washington Post points out, that “general but vague” sense includes “that audiences want a more direct engagement with the music, that to compete with television, video and popular music, something radical had to happen to the old shoe-box symphony hall, with its orderly rows of seats and formal distance between listener and musician.”
A new Frank Gehry-designed Miami Beach concert hall appears to be the first hall to effectively do that, according to the Post’s culture critic, Philip Kennicott.
Among a huge list of features: The hall integrates places for video to be projected (several dominant curvy white “sails”), uses some natural light and was built so the stage can be configured for smaller or bigger ensembles, depending on the performance. The whole piece is worth a read, he highlights Miami’s New World Symphony’s commitment to integrating video and other experimental media elements with its music, and what this hall means for that effort:
For the first time, that technology does not feel like an invasion into the 19th-century concert space, but an essential element of a newly emerging entertainment form. This may be horrifying to traditionalists. There is no distance between the listener and the music. The quantity of sound the hall develops suggests the enveloping, even overwhelming sound of music heard through headphones or ear buds. The video grabs the attention, making it difficult at times to find an objective remove from the details of the music. The fourth wall, whatever remained of that supposedly off-putting imaginary barrier between audience and spectacle, is now entirely shattered.
The integration of modern acoustics and ideas shows up in the Conrad Prebys Concert Hall at the University of California, San Diego, which opened in 2009. The man who designed the acoustics, world-renowned Cyril Harris, passed away earlier this month.
The hall at UCSD was Harris’s last project in a long career that took off in the 1960s when he helped design the acoustics for the Metropolitan Opera House. He went on to design the acoustics for more than 100 halls, including three theaters at the Kennedy Center and Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center, according to a New York Times obituary.
A video about the UCSD concert hall includes interviews with Harris and footage of him firing a cannon in the hall to test its acoustic evenness. One of the directors on that video was Dirk Sutro, former architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, who now works for the UCSD music department. We interviewed Sutro about architecture, jazz and that concert hall, inside the hall, last summer.
He told me about the acoustic speaker systems that allow 12 different separate channels to be broadcast in the audience. (For real audiophiles, here’s the university’s rundown of the hall’s technical features.)
I asked about the angular walls in the hall, another feature implemented to try to innovate a new experience for a music listener. Here’s what Sutro said:
Well, there’s all these panels at different angles all around the room. The purpose of that is to diffuse the sound, or scatter it kind of evenly over the audience. And it actually works because if you sit in the back row, if you sit in the middle, or if you sit in the front row, the sound is all very good and you have the unique experience of feeling like you’re inside the sound, instead of that — here’s the performers and they’re pushing sound out to you.