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‘Teamwork is vital’: An investigation into concert hall acoustics

With the exciting prospect of two new concert halls for London, David Davies takes a look at the acoustical science behind Hamburg’s hugely acclaimed Elbphilharmonie and compiles a selection of the current best-sounding venues in the world

Photo: Maxim Schulz

Article by David Davies

When one of the world’s leading conductors starts offering forthright opinions about concert hall acoustics, people tend to sit up and pay attention.

So it has been with Sir Simon Rattle – until recently, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and now music director of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) – who has repeatedly made some less-than-favourable remarks about the situation for classical performance in London.

In part, these were prompted by what he perceives as the drawbacks of the LSO’s own home base, the Barbican. Although enthusiastic about its cultural contribution, he indicated that a new London venue for classical music was required as the Barbican was unable to accommodate about a fifth of the orchestral repertoire for acoustical and physical reasons (source: The Guardian, January 2017).

Well, it appears Rattle’s wish is to be more than granted, with plans now advancing for not one, but two new London venues. The LSO, the Barbican and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama are closely involved in the one facility, the Centre for Music, which is expected to be located on the current Museum of London site close to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Initial designs by lead architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro were released in early 2019, and after securing some initial finance the project has progressed to further design, fundraising and business modelling.

Although primarily geared towards classical music, the venue – whose main hall capacity is expected to be 2,000 – is set to host other forms of music and arts. According to Elizabeth Diller, founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro: “We imagine a concert hall for the 21st century that embraces both a bespoke and a loose fit approach – tailored for exceptional symphonic sound, yet agile enough to accommodate creative work across disciplines and genres.”It’s arguable that no sizeable new venue in a capital city could be developed strictly for one genre. Indeed, the other new venue in prospect for London – a proposed 1,250-seater in Wimbledon – is intended to host musicians and genres from around the world, as well as providing a home for the Wimbledon festival and the Wimbledon Choral Society. One of the star attractions here is that the venue is expected to feature a design by Frank Gehry, an undoubted star of the global architectural community whose countless cultural projects include the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The outlook for these two projects underlines the fact that – even if one type of music is predominant – there needs to be an ability to handle other genres and maybe even speech-oriented events, too. As any acoustician will profess, it can be an unenviable task, but among recent developments, the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg in Germany is one venue that seems to have pulled it off with some style.

The general and artistic director of the Elbphilharmonie is Christoph Lieben-Seutter, who joined the project in 2008 – more than nine years before it was ultimately inaugurated in January 2017. The needs of orchestral repertoire were always at the forefront as “it was clear from the very beginning that classical music was going to be our ‘core product’. The percentage we were looking at was about 75-85 per cent acoustic music, with the rest amplified – and that has proven to be the case.

”Consequently, a higher reverberation time was always a priority for project architects Herzog & de Meuron, who worked in close cooperation with legendary acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. Take a look at the largest, Grand Hall space, and you will see that there are numerous features designed to optimise the control of sound energy – not least the ‘white skin’ cladding concept, which involves the walls and ceiling being covered with the requisite thickness and a precisely definable surface structure that is the same throughout the hall. Depending on the position and requirements, sound is reflected directly from the flat points of the panels and scattered back from areas with deep indentations. More than 10,000 of these panels were used, all individually milled from gypsum fibre concrete.

Meanwhile, the Elbphilharmonie’s location on the Hamburg dockside called for several specific measures to prevent the intrusion of external noises. For example, the outer wall is made of reinforced concrete and forms part of the building as a whole, whilst the inner wall is separate from the outer one and rests on large groups of springs.

Equipped with a d&b audiotechnik in-house PA and a central canopy cluster of Kling & Freitag speakers, the venue’s long development was not without controversy. In particular, there were widely voiced concerns over the final cost of the venue. But there has been no argument with the end-result: the Elbphilharmonie now hosts around 70 performances every year by resident orchestra the NDR Elbphilharmonie, as well as many visiting ensembles.

Modern developments such as acoustic absorption panels and easily configurable digital signal processors have made it easier for halls to accommodate different event types, but Lieben-Seutter believes it’s always preferable “if you do decide [about your principal application] when you set out to build a world class hall.” One of the primary reasons that the Elbphilharmonie has been a “huge success is that it has a very special architectural design and was clearly built for classical music to be performed at the highest possible level.”

Aside from determining your primary artistic and commercial requirements, the evidently successful partnership between the Elbphilharmonie protagonists reinforces a point made by Professor Trevor Cox. A past president of the Institute of Acoustics, Cox is now Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, and is also a widely-published author and broadcaster on acoustics.

Invited to offer some advice to the teams contemplating the new London venues, Cox responds that “teamwork is vital. If you look at venues which have not [been very successful acoustically] it’s often the case that the architects, consultants and acousticians have not worked together well. This can lead to an architect having a vision that doesn’t work acoustically”.

Depending on the reverberation time being sought, new venues will variously make use of modern absorption techniques to help adjust the space – for instance, a drier acoustic will be sought for non-acoustic music. Modern electro-acoustical systems, such as Meyer Sound’s Constellation, may also have a part to play, although as Cox observes, these can be met with resistance from orchestral players for whom “the prowess of their playing [is a very central preoccupation]. It’s not so much an issue with more contemporary classical music, though”.

With so many challenges to overcome, it’s hardly surprising that the development of new venues tends to last many years; the Centre for Music, for example, isn’t expected to be ready until the second half of the next decade. But with new-builds on the agenda in many other European nations, it’s evident that there are going to be many new opportunities to further advance the cause of concert hall acoustics.