Norman Lebrecht on shifting sound worlds
Dirty, wet, concrete desolation.
I’m going there tonight. That C P E Bach had better be good.
With Messrs Esfahani and Driver playing, it’s bound to be excellent.
Can’t wait to see how they are going to ‘brighten up’ the Southbank complex.
What nonsense. It’s wet because it’s been raining, no more dirty than any other building in a major city, and not in the slightest bit desolate. It may not be to everybody’s taste architecturally, but it’s fine inside and the seats are comfortable with lots of leg room.
It may be bleak but it does have the best concert hall acoustic in London!
The QEH is a fine accoustic, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s as good as Milton Court or King’s Place.
Agreed. It’s first impression is “welcome to the backwater of civilisation”.
Crumbs! Speaking as a musician who has travelled widely across the world over 30 years and has played (and listened, and balanced, and taken on board his colleagues’ reactions) in most of the major halls of Europe, the Far East, N America etc, I am faintly dismayed whenever I hear someone suggest that the QEH has a decent acoustic for classical music, especially when you take into account the fabulous quality of the musicians who go on that stage and do their utmost. If you compare the QEH to the fine concert halls that you can find in almost any other major city in Europe, it sits woefully far down the list of world-class 1000 to 1200 seaters. The situation of the QEH is certainly world-class – there can be few better views when you walk outside – but speaking as a performer, the experience inside is pretty depressing, and no amount of acoustic tweaking can ever sort that out. London desperately needs a world-class 1200 seater hall, ideally right on the site of the QEH.
Anyone with £80-£100 million to spare? They’d probably put your name on it too…
I completely agree. I have been waiting for a very long time for somebody – or preferably several people – with a lot of political clout and influence with the business community to start a campaign to give London the world-class concert hall it deserves. The RFH is worse after its hugely expensive refurbishment than before, to the extent that the rumbling trains are now more than just a perceived aural background, not to mention all the additional noise, dirt and inconvenience brought about by turning the place into “The People’s Palace”. The Barbican’s metallic warehouse acoustic provides little sonic enjoyment. Every other minor city (Copenhagen, Luxemburg, Hamburg (work in progress), for instance) has a glittering example of a successful venue for symphonic concerts, yet London has to make do with third-class halls. It’s more than just a crying shame; it’s a national scandal.
It’s not just the money. Some people believe it’s worth saving for architectural reasons.
I doubt if many people outside the eccentric world of modern architecture could give a stuff.
Hardly the most thrilling sight is it. Compared to some venues of similar stature, perhaps something of an embarassment. Still, its there and in use and I am grateful for the events which take place inside its drear and bleak shell.
Bleak, yes. But here’s a contestant for ugly — Morris Mechanic Theater in Baltimore, MD http://www.architectmagazine.com/architecture/a-brutal-week-for-brutalism.aspx
After the war, it became possible to win an architecture award by putting up a cheap concrete, aluminium and glass box that if it didn’t fall over spontaneously inside 40 years, you’d knock it down in 50. The latter half of the 20th Century won’t be discoverable by archeologists of the future because tenders always go to the cheapest. Yet in large cities, most of the greatest buildings are hundreds of years old, with nothing modern to parallel them for beauty and durability. With the odd exception like Sydney Opera House, there will be next to nothing of beauty in buildings to bequeath to our children’s children.
Rather bleak assessment. I might agree in some cases (the Hayward Gallery needs a bomb) but the Royal Festival Hall is a lovely building, very finely fitted out and with an elegant curve to its river side. There are some stunning post-war buildings, but I wonder whether because the majority of significant buildings are either office blocks or shopping centres we judge them on purpose rather than form. After all, an office block can’t be a thing of beauty, can it, given its dreary function.
The QEH is in need of some attention externally, having been up for 50 years, but any people judging it on the picture above should realise that in front of it and underneath it there is a large array of cafes and shops (not to mention the infamous skate park…) plus all the facilities inside the Festival Hall, and the transport links are excellent. So pretty it might not be, but it’s not bleak and desolate.
I have played in a number of beautiful, and very modern, concert halls. Three outstanding ones to me are the Sapporo Concert Hall (“Kitara”), Festival Hall in Osaka, and Disney Hall in L.A. I find them to be visually and acoustically inspiring.
The two you mention are indeed very much to taste as well – both magnificent buildings.
I am undecided about Disney Hall. I like the building as such, and also the hall inside, but the acoustics are far from ideal. The low and middle range carries quite well, but the hall has a tendency to “overload” when things get loud. The sound gets a certain compacted muffledness when a big orchestra plays really loud in there.
If Disney’s acoustics are far from ideal — and assuming your sense of sound is quite sensitive and sophisticated — then all the other major concert halls of the world would have to be deemed non-ideal, period. I’ve been gauging the sound quality of other orchestral settings, including the Philharmonie, Lucerne’s hall, Boston Symphony, the Musikverein, the Concertgebouw and certainly Carnegie (because I think it’s the most acoustically overrated of the majors, with a surprising dryness to its sound) for the past 10 years and the clarity, bass and reverberation in Disney Concert Hall always end up striking me as better in various ways, and definitely in tandem, than the rest.
Dunno how sophisticated my sense of sound really is – sound and acoustics is certainly something I pay close attention to – but if it is, your must be pretty sophisticated, too, since we seem to largely agree in our observations. See my comments about Carnegie Hall further down the page.
I also agree that Disney has good bass – a little bit too much though, I think, and I say that as someone who likes a good low end response since I used to be a bass player – and good mid range clarity. The sound also carries rather well. I remember when I heard Symphonie fantastique there, the woodwind solos effortlessly floated through the hall, both the oboe solo on stage and the cor anglais solo which came from the upper right back corner of the hall (since this “shepherd’s song” is supposed to come from offstage) reached me and sounded as if they were much closer than they really were. But the problem is, like I said, that the hall easily overloads when things get loud. I first noticed that when I heard Mahler 3 there. The loud tuttis just sounded very compacted, it sounds as if there is a lid on the sound and once a certain level is reached, the sound struggles, it doesn’t unfold and grow anymore. The hall is very cleverly designed and I like that it is fairly steep so the sound can rise up to all areas in the hall and you can see very well from every area, too. And even the seats which are further away aren’t all that far away since they are pretty high up.
So overall, definitely not a bad hall at all, not a place to hear and see music, but it does have its limitations when it comes to accommodating the sound of large orchestras. I think it is a very good place to hear small and medium ensembles, less so for big orchestral repertoire.
In the end, I think the final verdict also depends a lot on “sample size”, meaning if you have been to all of the halls you mentioned, how many concerts have you heard in each, have you sat in various places in those halls, what types and sizes of ensembles have you heard etcetcetc.
Have you had the opportunity to experience Disney in a number of such different program types?
“…not a place to hear and see music…”
I meant “not a bad place to hear and see music” but typed too fast!!!
I don’t really know the Disney from the audience point of view, having heard maybe 4 concerts there. It is a wonderful hall to play in, which is how I’ve mostly experienced it.
What kind/size of ensemble have you played in at Disney? I have never played there so I do not have that perspective, but I can imagine it is probably a hall in which you can hear yourself and the other musicians easily on stage.
Derek Williams says:
January 30, 2014 at 2:12 pm
“With the odd exception like Sydney Opera House, there will be next to nothing of beauty in buildings to bequeath to our children’s children.”
Judging only from pictures – I have never been to Australia -, I find the Sydney Opera House quite ugly, an architect’s ego trip. And people I know who have been there and performed in it tell me it has terrible acoustics and it is a very impractical performance space, too.
Looks like Maryland Favelas.
If I were fabulously wealthy I’d hire someone to take the blueprints and rebuild Queen’s Hall down to the last cornice.
And if I were fabulously wealthy you’d have a partner in the project!
If it’s a concert hall, I frankly do not care what it looks like — I care what it SOUNDS like. The globe is littered with prize-winning architectural masterpieces that, acoustically, aren’t worth the prestressed-concrete they are constructed with. Example: the much acclaimed and admittedly externally beautiful Sydney Opera House. I hear the opera hall within the complex is an acoustical disaster, and I can speak from experience that the concert hall is likewise dreadful, at least from the seat I occupied. At least two of the major music capitals of the world (London and NYC), are bereft of large halls with absolutely top-rank acoustics. Tokyo used to be in this fix until the opening of the sonically superb Opera City hall, surely acoustician Leo Beranek’s masterpiece.
I recall an article saying that houses with the best acoustic are invariably of the “shoebox” kind. Boris, if you’re reading: Let’s have one of those for London!
Re: sixtus’ comment I also recall something along the lines of the Opera hall in the Sydney Opera house was intended for concerts, and the concert hall for opera, but political wangling reversed intention to leave it how it is today. The SOH seems to have a certain notoriety for poor acoustic, which is a shame, as it is (at least for me) gorgeous to look at. I am curioys now. Which houses or halls marry great aesthetics and good acoustics?
Halls with good acoustics aren’t invariably shoebox; some are vineyard-style as well (Berlin Philharmonie, Walt Disney Concert Hall). But it does seem to be one or the other.
Berlin and Disney are not very good acoustics, despite common belief and media claims based on hearsay. But a great orchestra can give a good performance in them.
What do you think about my comments about Disney? Did I manage to assess the acoustics there fairly?
What problems do you see (or rather, hear) with the Philharmonie in Berlin?
And as a result the opera house is too small for Verdi, Wagner etc.
… er, Suntory Hall?
What, no love for Carnegie Hall?
As for the Sydney Opera House, the halls’ sound and layout are bad because the New South Wales government famously fired original architect Jorn Utzon due to cost overruns and hired a local firm to finish the interior as quickly and cheaply as possible.
There’s been a movement for some time now to complete the Opera House as Utzon designed it. If I understand correctly, the Australian federal government, the NSW state government and the local authorities all support the idea in theory but are reluctant to spend huge amounts of taxpayer money on what would be an extremely expensive project.
Can any Aussies here give us the current situation?
Although I haven’t been able to track down any images of them on the web, I’d be very wary of any redoing of the interiors of the Sydney complex based on Utzon’s original plans. The understanding of concert hall acoustics has progressed tremendously since the mid 1950s. For example, it is now very well established why “shoebox” halls are a more reliable way to get at least a good, if not superb, acoustic (one reason: because the side-wall reflections hit the listener at optimum levels and timings and mainly before any reflections from the ceiling). Deviate from the shoebox model at your own risk. Some so-called “vineyard” or “fan” halls may indeed be good (I’ve experienced neither Berlin nor Disney) but all of the other fan-shaped hall’s I’ve been in fall very short of such classic shoebox venues as Boston’s Symphony Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the Vienna Musikverein.
I don’t think the acoustics in Carnegie Hall aren’t all that great. The place is just too big and cavernous. The sound does carry pretty well and it’s certainly better than many other halls, but it also has a certain thinness which can turn into shrillness when things get louder.
Of course, it’s much better than Avery Fisher Hall. That place is a complete disaster. And it’s ugly as hell, too, at least in my uninformed opinion. They tried to fix the acoustics several times and if that resulted in any improvements, it only means it must have been even worse – though I find that hard to imagine – before.
Generally, it seems that once a hall is screwed up, it’s very hard to fix, so I don’t know if they can ever fix whatever the problems are with the Sydney Opera House.
Oh, Avery Fisher was by all reports much worse before. When it opened, the sound was compared to a cardboard box, and the often-heard comment was “Tear it down and start over.”
In August, for the Mostly Mozart Festival, they set up a stage toward the center of the hall for the orchestra and seat audience members on the permanent stage. I and many other people, including a few I know of who’ve worked at Lincoln Center, think that arrangement actually provides acceptable acoustics. Not Concertgebouw- or Disney Hall-level, but the best that hall has yet had.
The Mostly Mozart setup DOES improve the sound of the orchestra, probably because it removes the ensemble from the far-too-low ceiling of the quasi-shell around the stage. I detest acoustic shells in general and its quite significant that none of the truly great shoebox concert halls, old and new (such as the best Russell Johnson halls like Lucerne, Dallas, and Birmingham), have anything but pretty-much open air above the stage. In them, nothing reflects substantial amounts of sound down into the audience from above until after the crucial side-wall reflections have done their magic. I believe that Avery Fisher could be enormously improved, if not perfected (which would probably require a narrowing of the hall and a consequent reduction in seating capacity), by a (relatively) inexpensive refashioning of the stage environment — lifting ceiling to the height of the hall itself and making it bumpy and level, not flat and angled to reflect sound toward the audience as it is now.
My impression is that the problems at Avery Fisher Hall have less to do with reflections from above the stage arriving early than that the hall generally is just too dead, too muffled.
Carnegie Hall had some of the finest acoustics in the world before its renovation and the building’s upgrade- though the rear of the dress circle had some dead spots and, if memory isn’t playing tricks, a noisy refrigeration unit, even if no one liked to talk about it. While the programming and brand have continued to flourish, especially with the refurbishment of Weill Hall and addition of Zankel Hall, some complained right after the renovation of more brilliance or harshness in the acoustics in the great hall at the expense of a loss of warmth of sound. (See, for example: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/26/arts/acoustical-tinkering-at-carnegie.html?pagewanted=print and http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1989-08-31/features/8901090228_1_acoustical-carnegie-hall-stage-walls) I’m not sure the subsequent tinkering has made that much difference. Regardless, it is still a great hall – and one where people continue to cough and rattle their programs during performances. (For those suffering the former problem, sneak up to a box level and grab a free handful of Ricolas to use….or toss.)
“Carnegie Hall had some of the finest acoustics in the world before its renovation”
Yes, I have been told that before, but apparently that was a long time ago, so what does it matter now? You apparently knew the hall back then, but how do you know it had “one of the finest acoustics in the world”? Have you been to most of the oher more famous concert halls and heard enough concerts in each to get a realistic idea of their qualities? Whatever its acoustics are/were like, I think the place is just simply too big.
I also noticed when I was in Carnegie Hall how loud the audience was but that is not a NY specific phenomenon. It’s like that everywhere I have been to concerts in America.
Mr. Schaeffer- I’ve been to other fine ones- but you are right, certainly not to all of them- and I’m not an acoustician, and should not have relied on others’ opinions for something I had not fully sampled. (Though, even if I had, I suppose you might have disputed it- and maybe have been right.) I disagree that it is ‘too big’. Too big for what? A Bruckner Symphony? The Verdi Requiem? A solo recital of late Beethoven piano sonatas? 20 minutes of silence by John Cage? (I don’t think so for the first three.) Anyway, at the risk of overstating the case, the genius of the Carnegie Hall architects and planners is that now you have three halls of different sizes and configurations that, apart from full opera, can accommodate most everything else of music. So, take your pick.
All it needs is the forcible removal of the skateboarders.
Having, or not having, skateboarders doing their bit near the hall won’t change the poor design and even poorer acoustics of the QEH. Though of course the surroundings as you approach and leave a concert hall add to your “experience” (to use that over-used expression), surely the most important thing of all in going to hear a concert is to go to a hall where the music and the musicians are given the acoustic to sound really, really good. That’s why world-class musicians queue up to perform at Wigmore Hall, and why audiences there come back time and time again – it’s a truly great chamber hall with fabulous acoustics. The QEH, as per my comment some way above, cannot ever be made to sound good, whatever you do to it. Probably not that many people would vote it as an architectural jewel worthy of one of the great cities of the world either, but it is the internals that are the fundamental problem – you can cover the outside in glass, or plant a garden on it, or whatever the latest plan is (we’ve seen several ideas come and go over 20+ years) but the acoustics cannot be so radically changed as to make them acceptable. If more people only knew what they could have, they would perhaps shout rather louder. Just go (taking one example) to Lucerne and hear a concert in the fabulous KKL hall, and then add the stunning views outside it. That’s the sort of hall (albeit slightly larger than what the QEH needs to be) that London and its amazing musicians, its great audiences, and that astonishing river view deserve. And that’s what we should all be campaigning for. We spent a fortune building an Olympic Park: spend a fraction of that and build a hall that will give London a concert venue that matches the quality of its musicians, rewards, encourages and develops its audiences. and even maybe over that next century will recoup and repay its build costs in the benefits it will bring to the South Bank. Or maybe there is someone with a spare £80-100 million who wants to give something enduring and truly world class to London?
You don’t have to go all the way to Lucerne to hear music in fine acoustics.
Just travel up the Birmingham where there are two concert hall better than the South Bank – Symphony Hall & Town Hall.
Both the QEH & RFH should be knocked down or blown up – Sod the stupid preservationists – they are musical morons.
Who cares? Music is auditory, not visual.
Never been there, but it does look awful from the picture.
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