Delighting in Decibels 

Great music is a plus, but a good concert hall makes all the difference.

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Still don’t believe that superior acoustics make or break a performance? Would you rather take in a concert in the great outdoors with wine and cheese or a game of Frisbee? Or perhaps you’re one of the few who actually enjoys the cold, cavernous wails of a concert at the Delta Center.

You might just have to trust the music snobs on this one. Take, for example, Simon Rattle, conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He once said the dead acoustics of London’s Royal Festival Hall sapped his will to live. You see, good acoustics are not just a matter of life or death. They’re much more important than that.

It’s not as if the designers behind Royal Festival Hall didn’t try. In fact, it was one of the first halls in the world built around scientific principles of modern acoustics. External noise was considered. An entire team of acoustic consultants was assembled. Sound panels were engineered. The hall’s opening was a big deal in 1951. Only years later did people realize that not every acoustical instruction was followed in the building process. Then there was the small matter of what happened when the hall filled to capacity. Audience members, it turned out, absorbed too much sound, making the place sound “dead.” Building an acoustically-sound hall is a tricky proposition.

Throughout the ages, some composers even wrote their music with a certain concert hall in mind. Bach composed his pieces for a specific church in Leipzig, and many of his organ pieces were expressly written to explore the acoustical limits of reverberation. French composer Hector Berlioz whined about the horrid sounds that bounced off the walls of the Paris Opera House. He’d yet to hear far worse. Berlioz was practically crushed upon discovering how dreadful one of his compositions sounded in Paris’ Hall of Machinery at the Exhibition of Industrial Products. German composer Richard Wagner took matters into his own hands and helped design the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in 1876. Good music is much like the fine, lithe body of a supermodel. You’ve got to dress it in the best acoustical finery before it’s truly capable of grabbing your full attention.

“The thrill of hearing Bach’s B minor Mass, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is not only determined by the quality of the orchestra and interpretation of the conductor, but is enhanced immeasurably by the dynamic response of the concert hall. Response means both quiet support for the pianissimo parts and majestic levels at the fortissimos,” wrote Leo Beranek, one of the 20th century’s best-known acoustic engineers.

Here in the Salt Lake Valley, we’ve long been blessed with what’s widely recognized as one of the nation’s best crucibles of concert-hall sound: Abravanel Hall. Nearly every seat in the house gives you a good set of ears on the action, and most would agree it produces a well-rounded sound, rarely too brassy and sharp or overly warm and frumpy. Other than that, choices have been limited. The new Rose Wagner Hall was designed mostly with dance and theater in mind. Kingsbury Hall, with its proscenium stage, and Capitol Theater were built primarily for theater.

As for the Delta Center, forget about it. The hall that Larry H. Miller built is good only for rodeos and sporting events. But thanks to a special deal cut with Salt Lake County, the Delta Center was guaranteed every pop and rock concert within city limits. Now, thanks to the hall’s dreadful void of acoustics, even an R.E.M. concert sounds like the wails of a Khmer Rouge torture chamber instead of music. Those looking for a good rock or pop concert should give copious thanks to whoever built the more amiable E Center, a hall that actually accords audiences a certain amount of sound respect.

Amid all these choices, it was chamber musicians and their fans who always came up short. Groups like the Abramyan String Quartet and Utah Chamber Artists made do with performance schedules that rotated between local churches and places like the downtown Salt Lake Arts Center. No more. Now they have an expertly crafted home in the University of Utah’s Libby Gardner Concert Hall.

“It’s the real deal,” said Abramyan String Quartet cellist John Eckstein. “You never know until a hall’s done, but it’s really an excellent performing hall. We’ve played a lot of very nice halls in Japan—this one’s even better.”

Better, as in moveable sound panels on the sides and rear. In general, bands like them down a notch, choirs like them up, but there are all points in between. Better, as in wavelike forms on the ceiling. These help disperse the sound more evenly, and get rid of nasty “hot spots,” i.e., unusual reflections or concentrations of sound. Better, as in stunning looking. With its serene outlay and soothing mix of white and wood tones, the Libby Gardner Concert Hall is sharp enough to grace the cover of Architectural Digest. Finally, there’s the organ, the best of its kind after the famed pipes of the Mormon Tabernacle. Getting it up and running took a while, but everyone thrilled to the results.

“When [former Utah Symphony conductor] Joseph Silverstein saw this place, he said to me, ‘This is a lovely hall. You did it up just right,’” said Edgar Thompson, chairman of the music department while the hall was being built.

Armed with both a doctorate in music and a master’s degree in physics, Thompson was expertly equipped to help plan the hall’s construction. If the new hall seems like something of an indulgence on the part of the university’s music department, keep in mind that for 40 years the department never had a concert hall proper. For years, music students in the university’s orchestras and ensembles used the ballroom of Gardner Hall, which also served as the university’s student union building from 1930 to 1954.

The main challenge was putting together the best possible concert hall out of a $20 million budget, made possible by state taxpayer funds and the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation. The university chose an architectural firm it trusted, which in turn hired New York City’s Klepper-Marshall-King firm as acoustical engineers.

Becky Durham, director of the Libby Gardner Concert Hall, believes it was a recent concert by violin virtuoso Joshua Bell that really sold people on the quality of the hall’s acoustics. “People felt like they were right on top of him, whereas if you see a concert musician at Abravanel Hall, it’s a bit more like seeing someone on television,” Durham said. “With this hall, people can really feel like they’re part of the musical experience.”

Now the only dilemma is discovering how the hall works best for individual settings. Like food and art itself, the hall can never please all individual tastes. Jazz pianist Dr. Billy Taylor recently dubbed Libby “one of the finest concert halls I have performed in. The audience seems to hear exactly what I mean for them to hear.”

Sometimes, however, the hall overshoots its mark. But it can only be a matter of time before its quirks and fits are smoothed out. Henry Wolking, a professor of music at the university, praises the new hall as an excellent performing medium for acoustic instruments and recording. Bands that use electric instruments are another matter.

“There were a lot of complaints when [jazz saxophonist] Michael Brecker played,” Wolking said. “There was a lot of power coming from the stage. It tended to overshadow the overall experience. It’s a great hall, but not perfect. Then again, I’m not sure I’ve ever played a perfect hall.”

After decades of performing, composing and teaching music, Wolking’s slowly concluded that the world’s best halls—the Berlin Philharmonie, the Vienna Music Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Hall—are really more a matter of luck than the careful selection of materials and design.

Thompson politely disagrees, but admits that no concert hall is good for every type of music. As in politics, you have to strike a compromise.

“I’ve heard people talk both ways about it. When it gets down to some of the fine finishes, I think there’s more science involved than luck. But I’m more of a scientist,” Thompson said.

If more finicky ears still aren’t pleased, they can move to the department’s Dumke Recital Hall, the perfect place for student and professional recitals on a small scale. But, other than the size of an event, there’s really no reason to move from the Libby hall, where musicians can always adjust the halls’ sound panels for themselves before performing. That way there’s no one else to blame. “There’s no trick to it at all,” Thompson said. “The trick is to get the ears of someone you trust and have them listen as you adjust.”

Even that may pale to the challenge of finding the darned place. Scrunched for room, administrators had to take up the remaining parking spaces behind Gardner Hall if they were to make the Libby hall a reality. “Even then there’s no indication that it’s behind Gardner Hall. It’s real confusing to find. And, of course, there’s always the problem of finding parking,” Wolking said. “But once people find it, they’re amazed at how beautiful it is, as well as amazed that we’re fortunate enough to have this kind of facility.” n

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