Smoothing the sound, losing the reverb, banning the buzz

Both the BSO and the Meyerhoff are getting a major tuning for the group's 85th season.

Classical Music

September 09, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

If all goes according to plan, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will never sound the same again -- at least not in its home base.

This week, as the ensemble starts its 85th season, audiences will get to hear the results of the final acoustical renovations at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a five-year, $11 million project aimed at enhancing the experience of musicians and listeners alike. (The full effect of the modifications could not be appreciated at last night's annual BSO gala, since the stage and seating areas were altered for the occasion.)

Earlier phases in the project have already produced improvements, including a non-acoustical one -- a decrease in air drafts on the orchestra. But with the installation this summer of a new, larger and more integrated canopy of geometrically arrayed sound reflectors above the stage, the Meyerhoff sound should realize its most substantive transformation to date.

"Before we started the renovations, the sound was warm, soft-focused, very pretty -- like what they do with filming movie stars," says BSO president John Gidwitz . "The first phase very much clarified that sound. There was a little less glow to it as a result, but I'm hoping the new canopy restores that glow."

Such a result would make a fitting bonus for an orchestra still basking in another kind of glow, the one from press reviews since Yuri Temirkanov became music director 20 months ago. With Temirkanov on the podium for 12 weeks of concerts during the 2001-2002 season, plus another two weeks leading the BSO on tour in Europe, the ensemble will inevitably become even more "his" orchestra, reflecting his priorities and ideals.

'Twist' and shifts

In addition to a "new" Meyerhoff Hall and a new concert series called "Symphony with a Twist" (aimed at a younger, martini-drinking crowd), the orchestra is facing some other newness this season -- three new players, including principal trumpeter Andrew Balio.

Veteran BSO watchers will spot not only fresh faces, but also familiar ones in different places. The two former leaders of the second violins have moved back into the section; interim principal and assistant principal players for that section have been drawn from the BSO ranks while auditions are held.

And all eyes will be on the concertmaster's chair. Guest violinists will be taking turns in that seat while an international search for a new concertmaster is under way. Not every fiddler sitting there will necessarily be a candidate for the job, but speculation will be unavoidable. (Boris Garlitzky, who has been concertmaster of the Orchestre National de Lyon, will play this week's program; Jonathan Carney, concertmaster of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra -- which Temirkanov served as principal conductor during the 1990s -- is due next week.)

It's evident that Temirkanov is adjusting the BSO as carefully and thoughtfully as the acoustical firm of Kirkegaard and Associates has been refining the sonic properties of the 19-year-old Meyerhoff. The goal of both efforts is elusive, but laudable: perfection.

As for the hall, the original plans called for much more drastic alterations to the building, including audience seats behind the stage, new corridors and exits.

"Dorothy Scott, a board member who I think has been attending BSO concerts for 70 years, suddenly said, 'I don't think you ought to do this,' " Gidwitz says. "And she was right. We decided we liked the hall too much the way it was. That made this a more complicated project, but we preserved the shape and character of the hall."

Science of acoustics

Most of the changes made during the past five summers have been subtle -- reconfiguring side walls to smooth out contours and eliminate harshness in the sound; changing plaster work on the rear of the stage to control clarity and reverberation; replacing the rear walls of the grand tier level with sound diffusers covered by perforated aluminum panels. Even the new canopy above the stage looks enough like the old one that some people may not notice anything new.

Whether slight or major, every step in this process is part of the complex science of acoustics.

"The new canopy is designed to distribute sound evenly so the orchestra can communicate well onstage and the musicians can hear each other better," says Carl Giegold of the Kirkegaard firm. "It will also benefit virtually all of the orchestra-level audience."

Those in that main-floor seating area should now enjoy the kind of full, clear sound that already reaches ears in the higher elevations. Whatever the location in Meyerhoff, there is one sound that no one should be able to hear anymore -- the annoying, low-level hum that can come from lighting fixtures.

"The original lighting system from 1982 has since become an antique," Giegold says. "The filaments caused a buzz that a lot of people noticed."

A new, state-of-the-digital-art, very quiet theatrical lighting system has been installed.

"The only sound we want in this hall is the orchestra," says BSO facilities manager David Ragland.

The first two subscription programs, ranging from the transparent textures of Mozart, Debussy and Ravel to the thicker tone palette of Brahms and Strauss, seem designed to test the full spectrum of the refurbished acoustics.

The orchestra will not be alone in exploring its upgraded acoustical environment as the season progresses. An impressive roster of guests should have much to contribute -- pianists Emanuel Ax, Evgeny Kissin, Nelson Freire, Leif Ove Andsnes; violinists Joshua Bell and Pamela Frank; cellist Natalia Gutman; conductors David Zinman and Mario Venzago, to name just a few.

Possibilities for aural stimulation appear to be great over the next nine months, culminating in June when Temirkanov conducts Mahler's Symphony No. 3, with its emotional trajectory from birth to heavenly fulfillment.

So it looks like quite a season of discovery ahead for the BSO, in many ways.

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