At Meyerhoff, hearing is believing The symphony hall has undergone three years of acoustic readjustment, plus some other renovations, and now the time has come to listen to the results.

September 20, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For most of the summer, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall has looked like Miss Havisham's parlor in "Great Expectations" - except that, instead of cobwebs, the cinnamon seats have been swathed in plastic and the plastic in a patina of dust.

For two months the hall has been a construction site, with a dozen projects going on at once. On July 2, the day after the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra finished its Summer MusicFest concerts, workers began tearing up the wooden stage floor and its cement and steel underpinnings. Dumpsters outside the front doors were filled with rubble, and the staff dressed in shorts and jeans, the better to negotiate the backstage chaos.

At the orchestra's first rehearsal for its Beethoven season last week, the musicians were still exploring the hall: its sound, its feel, its new nooks and crannies.

"Is that where the piano goes?" asked one, peering past a festoon of yellow police tape into the grille that now curtains off the underside of the stage. Indeed, the grand pianos will be housed under the stage and hauled up for concertos by a mechanism called a climbing chain.

Violist Peter Minkler took time during a break in the "Eroica" Symphony to play part of a partita, while another viola section member listened from the 10th row to hear how the instrument carried.

Audiences at this past weekend's concerts would not have seen most of thealterations, which are largely subcutaneous. The new, larger box office, curving into what was once a square lobby, is obvious. Some will notice that the 22 seats of Row A have been sacrificed to accommodate the expanded apron of the stage.

However, four additional seats were installed in the grand tier (the first balcony), so the house has lost just 18 seats, for a total of 2,445.

But the piano pit is invisible, and so is new storage space above and below the stage, some new offices and a small lecture hall/reception room above the box office.

Almost invisible, except to the ears, are the other changes to Meyerhoff: its three-year acoustic readjustment, which was the impetus for all the rest of the construction. As long as the hall had to be torn apart for the acoustic touch-up recommended by the Chicago firm of Kierkegaard & Associates, BSO officials decided that all these other renovations might as well be undertaken.

The whole project, which will be completed next summer, will cost $6.1 million. Of that, the state of Maryland has provided $3 million and the city of Baltimore $1 million. The remaining $2 million is budgeted into a capital campaign that will be launched by the BSO at the end of the century.

The main goal, and at the same time the most elusive one, was to "maintain the Meyerhoff-ness of the hall," says BSO general manager Steven Brosvik.

Meyerhoff was the fourth concert hall to be designed by acoustician Theodore Schultz, who died just before it opened in 1982, and his partner, Rein Pirn. By all accounts, it is the best. Schultz experimented with open stage design and what acoustical consultant R. Lawrence Kierkegaard calls "polycylindrical surfaces" - the scallop design that unifies Meyerhoff's decor.

Schultz's earlier halls, in Toronto; Melbourne, Australia; and San Francisco, all have enormous acoustical problems. San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall was so erratic that it underwent a $3 million acoustic upgrade designed by the Kierkegaard group in 1993. The hall was closed for five months while its insides were gutted and replaced.

However, though Meyerhoff is the best of Schultz's halls, it had some significant drawbacks for the orchestra. The sound was enormous on stage, and the musicians complained of hearing losses. Where the scallops came together in the walls of the house, pockets of acoustical reflection for high-frequency sound were created. Low and medium-frequency sound echoed off the back wall of the house.

The result, says Kierkegaard, was acoustic confusion for the musicians, who at times could not hear the conductor speak from the podium though their own notes were booming around their ears.

Some temporary measures were installed last summer. Kierkegaard and a stagehand bought two bolts of white wool gabardine (intended for monks' robes in Massachusetts) from a fabric store, and taped it around the stage. It was unsightly, but it took the edge off the high strings and gave them a soft, darker patina, he says.

The side walls of the house were re-configured from six columnar curves into three shallow curves - in effect, straightening the shape of the hall and giving the sound a gentler slope against which to roll.

The acousticians also tried layers of felt to correct the hall's echo at the back. But experienced listeners - including music director David Zinman - also noticed that the felt took much of the life out of the room.

The most visible changes won't come until next summer, when the overhead acoustical discs called "clouds" will be removed, along with the unsightly sculpture of speaker boxes that dangles above the conductor.

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