First-Hand:My Personal Experience With Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall
Submitted by A. Michael Noll, October 12, 2022
© Copyright AMN 2022
The acoustics of concert halls involve the physics of sound, but also the politics of large donors – and public relations. Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall teaches us many lessons about this. One lesson is do not make advance predictions of acoustic success. Another is independent evaluation is very challenging when large donors are involved. The following is the story of my small involvement and personal experience with the acoustics of Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall.
Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall
The acoustician of New York’s original Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in 1962 was the well-respected Dr. Leo Beranek. He visited concert halls around the world to learn what basic principles resulted in great sound, and used the lessons for his design of Philharmonic Hall. He predicted in advance that it would be one of the best halls ever. He was wrong, and the critics pronounced Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall as a failure. Beranek was dismissed, which was not fair to him – he should have been allowed to “tune” the Hall. But the optics of bad publicity required prompt action. Over the decades since, all sorts of fixes were attempted – mostly all failures. Was the Hall somehow acoustically cursed?
Beranek had designed the Hall with acoustic reflective clouds in the ceiling that he claimed could be “tuned” to affect the acoustics. Calculations indicated that these clouds were acting as acoustic filters that allowed certain low frequencies to pass through but not to escape to ever be heard. One of the fixes focused on the clouds, but the acoustic ills still afflicted the Hall.
Bell Labs to the Rescue
In the early 1960s, the assistance of Bell Telephone Laboratories, Incorporated (Bell Labs) was enlisted as a source of independent advice on the acoustics of the Hall. Dr. Manfred R. Schroeder headed the team at Bell Labs who performed many acoustic measurements on the Hall. I worked for Schroeder on speech technology, and enjoyed listening to classical music. Sensing an opportunity to attend many concerts for free, I volunteered to join the team.
Most of the measurements were performed evenings when the Hall was not being used for rehearsals or actual concerts. Loudspeakers were placed on the stage, and shaped acoustic pulses used as acoustic stimuli, which were picked up by microphones placed at various positions in the Hall. The loudspeakers and microphones were all connected with cables – there were a lot of wires to be set and then unset before we left. The recordings were then taken back to Bell Labs for analysis on the IBM main-frame computer there. A lot of physics and mathematics were involved in the analyses. The conclusion was that the Hall was lacking in certain frequencies, which Schroeder blamed on the clouds acting as an acoustic filter, according to his calculations and measurements.
I relied on my ears to evaluate the Hall. At one of our sessions, the rear wall of the Hall was lined with acoustic absorbing material a few inches thick. I stood on the podium and clapped my hands to make an acoustic pulse. The reflection came back to me from the rear wall quite loudly, almost as if there were no acoustic absorption. The rear wall was spherical and was condensing the reflected sound. In my opinion, as a non-acoustician, the shape of the rear wall was the problem. In the acoustics of concert halls, opinions abound, and everybody thinks they are experts.
Before its official opening, the interior of Philharmonic Hall was painted in white primer. Critics who heard the Hall felt the sound was great. But then the Hall was painted in its final dark blue, and the sound was pronounced as not good. I doubt if the color of the paint actually affected the acoustics, but it did affect how the Hall looked – and that might psychologically had affected how critics thought it sounded.
I recall that the sound in the upper balcony was quite good, with plenty of lows. But the sound on the main floor was cloudy with missing lows. It is not good music business when the sound for the cheaper seats in the balcony is better that the expensive seats on the main floor.
I recall one time when Max Abramovitz (the architect of the Hall) and Schroeder were chatting at the front of the Hall. Abramovitz was lamenting about the poor acoustics and whether the sound would ever be made right – he was almost in tears. He clearly had a strong emotional attachment to the building he had created. I recall another time when the conductor George Szell and Schroeder were sitting together in the side balcony listening together to a concert to evaluate the sound. The accepted view was that the sound on the side balcony on the left was excellent.
Philharmonic Hall was nearly above the subway, which could be a source of acoustic noise. Carnegie Hall suffers from this problem, and there are famous recordings on which the subway can be heard. There was also concern about aircraft noise. Philharmonic Hall was designed with these problems in mind, and the construction of a hall within an outer building as a shell successfully protected it from aircraft and subway noise. The Hall’s ventilation system was also well designed acoustically so that it would not generate any acoustic noise. The lobby with the two Richard Lippold sculptures was magnificent. Some things were done right for Philharmonic Hall – it was just the sound that was not right.
Enter David Geffen Hall
After the Ball Labs team performed its measurements, a number of acousticians suggested changes. One believed the chairs on the main floor were a problem. New chairs with wooden backs were installed, adding an extra row or two to the seating on the main floor. It was suggested that the sound was “falling” off the stage, and a progressive ramp was installed. Leonard Bernstein liked the ramp because it made it easier for him to get back to the podium from the main floor. One acoustician had a special clapper made from two wood panels hinged together.
All these and much other costly redoing – included the very costly conversion that resulted in a new name, Avery Fischer Hall – only seemed to make the acoustic nightmare worse. A suggested solution was “tear it down and build afresh.” Instead, a total redesign of the existing structure was performed, resulting in the new David Geffen Hall.
I was in Los Angeles when the new Disney Hall had been finally completed. Not surprisingly for Los Angeles, the underground parking low was completed long before the hall was built above it. I went to a concert at the new hall.. The hall impressed me visually. I then membered to close my eyes so not to be distracted by what I saw, and to instead listen to the sound. Lows were absent; strings sounded harsh. I wrote a negative review. I was told that local reviewers could not be negative when such a large sum had been donated for the hall. Disney Hall is something of a hall within a shell; the lows escape the main hall and get trapped between the two structures. In a way, this is like the problem with the clouds at the original Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center.
It is easy to have an opinion about a concert hall. It would be very challenging to have the actual responsibility for the acoustic design of a new concert hall. Concert halls are a balancing between the architecture and the acoustics, each with their own requirements. It is not until it is all completed that a final assessment can be made. The critics have the final say on the architecture – and the sound – of any new concert hall. Today, halls cost nearly a billion dollars – a very costly investment with an uncertain outcome. Beranek decades ago wanted certain success – sadly he did not get what he wanted.
Placing the orchestra in an open acoustic space with the audience sitting around it is a popular design now for new halls. I have my doubts. Halls with the orchestra on a stage with walls around and overhead were invented decades ago –probably because this placement gave great sound. Carnegie Hall and Boston’s Symphony Hall use such a design. It might be exciting visually to sit close to the musicians – is it more about the visual than the acoustic experience today? I should not be about sight lines and visual intimacy – but about sound lines and acoustic intimacy. I go to live concerts to hear – not to see. Have we become today too much the video generation?
- Leo Beranek, Music, Acoustics, and Architecture, John Wiley & Son, 1962.
- A. Michael Noll, “The Myth of the Walt Disney Concert Hall,” Classical New Jersey Society Journal, Vol. 4, No. 15, April 15, 2004, pp. 23-24.