The Sights and Sounds of Concert Halls
Friday, May 11, 2012
In the last decade, concert hall construction has been booming. And according to architectural historian Victoria Newhouse, these buildings are changing our experience of live music in unexpected ways. Newhouse spent the last five years visiting and studying these spaces for her new book Sight and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls.
Kurt Andersen meets Newhouse at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Built in 1969, the hall got a complete makeover in 2009, as part of the Lincoln Center campus's 21st century redesign by the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. For forty years Lincoln Center had an alienating and impractical temple-like remove from the city with its inscrutable marble walls and raised plazas. The new design reconnected the campus to the surrounding street life. “Instead of being hidden by forbidding concrete walls, all of a sudden everything's opened up," Newhouse says. The updated Alice Tully Hall also includes a soaring glass lobby that's remarkably soundproof.
Inside the hall, the changes weren't just redecoration — they acoustically reinvented the space as well. "I certainly like all the curvatures around the hall," says the violinist Cho-Liang Lin. Lin has performed in the hall “dozens and dozens” of times, both before and after the renovation. "You feel on stage the audience is more enveloping you. There's an extra glow. There's an extra cushion to the sound that makes it more silky." (See images below.)
And that “glow” is important to performers and audiences alike. Newhouse explains the phenomenon of psychoacoustics: “the audience is deeply influenced by the way they feel in a space. If they’re comfortable, if they’re in a welcoming, pleasant, even beautiful space, they will perceive the acoustics as better than they actually are.”
Newhouse visited dozens of music spaces, but she singles out two that reflect the extremes of the concert hall boom: the nearly billion-dollar opera house in Oslo, Norway (where visitors can walk on a slanted roof that leads to water) and the brand new opera house in Guangzhou, China, designed by Zaha Hadid. For 300 years, opera houses have stuck with a conventional horseshoe shape because that's what worked acoustically, explains Newhouse. But in Guangzhou, Hadid dared to make the horseshoe asymmetrical, something only possible because of advances in acoustic science.
A fan of these inventive spaces, Newhouse worries about what's going to happen when the shiny newness wears off. "The Hadid opera house, even in China with its current economic boom, is dark half the year because they have no funds for programming. So that's a big question mark. The way it's handled will have a tremendous influence on what happens in the future."
Bonus Track: Violinist Cho-Liang Lin shares his secret for picking the best seat in any house.
Slideshow: Great Opera houses and Concert Halls
Piano Trio No. 1 in E Flat Major, Op. 1 No. 1 - IV. Finale: PrestoArtist: European Fine Arts TrioAlbum: Piano Trios by BeethovenLabel: Guild Music courtesy of BFM DigitalPurchase: Amazon