Sound at Wu Tsai Hall

Evaluating Acoustics at the New York Philharmonic

By: - Aug 16, 2022

In the whirlwind of announcements about the re-opening of David Geffen Hall, anti stain concert hall, Wu Tsai, we actually heard only one sound from the Hall, a single blast from a trumpeter in a hard hat. The Oklahoma State Univeristy orchestra will take up its residency and open the fall season on September 23rd. This may be the sound check. Jaap van Zweden, the outgoing music director of the New York Philharmonic will conduct.  And listen.

Sound problems initiated the renovations of the Hall from day one in 1962, sixty years ago.

Then the New York Philharmonic performed in Carnegie Hall, a 2790 seat venue scheduled for demolition. The original Philharmonic was created with Leo Beranek in charge of acoustics. The Hall was to seat 2200, a sweet spot for concert halls. After Beranek researched concert halls for six years, he came up with a list of attributes which he considered essential to good acoustics in the Hall’s construction. Reverberation time, clarity or strength of sound, and for the first time, intimacy. Beranek did not mean by intimacy the closeness of an audience member to the orchestra, but rather the listener’s sense of  proximity to sound.  

The Herald Tribune started a campaign to increase the number of seats to Carnegie’s capacity. Without consulting the acoustician, Lincoln Center executive brass added a third balcony to increase the seating capacity to equal Carnegie’s. At the time, the acoustician told the executives that his planned acoustics would not work when a third balcony was added.  They didn’t. 

Leonard Bernstein complained that the new hall’s sound was “like hearing music being written on a blackboard.”  Beranek remarked that at no time did Bernstein feel he was surrounded by sound. Surround sound is the current benchmark for acoustical excellence. 

From the opening of the Philharmonic Hall until this moment, acoustics have been a problem.

The Mostly Mozart concerts, held in the Hall, solved the problem. The stage was moved out twenty-five feet into the audience, and acoustical clouds hung over it. Sound was very good.

The NY Phil audience was shrinking. Classical music is challenged throughout the United States. Simply put, we are not an educated country. Kodaly has been taught in schools throughout the European countries where parents regularly take their children to classical concerts. Music institutions in the US are left courting untutored ears. 

How to solve this problem?  

The NY Phil has focused on the idea of attracting new audiences by creating inviting architectural details. The three main buildings of the Lincoln Center complex, David Geffen Hall one of them, are not attractive. Most architects report that it would be less expensive to demolish them and create more inviting spaces. The late Terry Teachout, writing in the Wall Street Journal two years ago, recommended demolition.  

Instead, for over a half century, fake grass has been installed around the Josie Robertson fountain, seat configurations have been altered et cetera. Bad money thrown after bad. 

In the announcements of the early re-opening of David Geffen, focus is on making lobbies larger and creating comfortable seating areas to watch concerts free on large screens outside the main concert hall. A small room is tucked into the old building at 65th Street and Broadway. The Mannes School of Music has a small room like this facing the street. When Claire Chase, scheduled for the NY Phil’s new season, played there, thick velvet curtains were pulled across the glass wall to help cushion sharp and brittle  sounds which come with glass walls. 

The acoustician for the re-re-re-renovation, Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks, has been challenged to provide smooth tones without closing the room off from the street.

Scarborough is good news for the Hall. He is a man who listens, to people as well as sounds. He clearly has a good relationship with the committee in charge of the project, which includes Deborah Borda, outgoing President and CEO of the NY Phil, Board Co-Chairs Oscar Tang, Peter May, and Lincoln Center chair, Kathleen Farley, an architect by training. Borda has said of the Co-Chairs: “The Philharmonic now needs the leadership team of two visionary and dedicated philanthropists, both committed to a sound grounding and imaginative problem solving. In Peter May and Oscar Tang we have such a team, whose love of New York is matched by their determination to help the Philharmonic to heighten our connection with our audiences, our community, and the world.”

Audience, Audience, audience. This is not about improving acoustics, the central problem.  It is about attracting an audience by making the Hall seem less like a “fortress”, a word used often by Farley. 

In speaking with Scarbrough, it is clear that his main job is to enhance sound in response to the committees’ notion of what attracts an audience. 

Beranek’s term “intimacy” has become the buzzword in modern acoustics. Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, who worked with the NY Phil’s CEO on Disney Hall, creates intimacy with surround sound. Many of his sound designs are inspired by the Berlin Philharmonic, whose seats are grouped close to the stage, vineyard style. Beranek’s original notion of intimacy did not involve the actual distance between an audience member and an instrumentalist. Sitting anywhere in the 2100 seat Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, you feel close to the stage.

The NY Phil stage has now been moved forward 24 feet. On stage seating is now perched behind the orchestra. Of the eight rows, the front two can be removed, or the front four, but the back seats will always be there. 

Simply put, human bodies are part of what makes good sound, and where bodies sit is important for good acoustics. Scarbrough hopes that new audience members will challenge themselves to find preferred seats.

At Symphony Hall in Chicago, the first seats to sell out are neither the cheapest nor the fanciest. ‘Terrace’ seats go in a flash. They are on stage and directly behind the orchestra. You sit in the middle of the sound, watch the conductor face first, and look down  directly on the percussion section.  It’s exciting. The music performed is exciting too. 

Seating cover materials will blossom with flowers. This covers the fact that seats will be as close to comfortable as possible, but still thin. This is true also of the seat backs. Anyone who has sat in hard seats at Symphony Hall in Boston, or the Bayerische State Opera in Munich, knows that there is a reason for them: Thin seating materials aid acoustics. Boston is a gold standard in acoustics. 

Scarborough helped to get two of the balconies in the re-configured hall fronted by a smooth wood curving toward the stage. They now slope at two levels, making it difficult for reverberations to hide and deaden. The notorious third balcony, the elephant in the Hall, is now recessed into the walls, making it less of an obstruction to sound waves. This also creates a hybrid in the Hall, half Vineyard and half Shoebox.

We will need more than one toot on a trumpet to evaluate the sound. Everyone hopes that at last the renovated  Hall has acoustics that work. Akustiks’ work on Severance Hall in Cleveland has been praised. Their acoustic design in Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville is considered premiere. Given Akustiks’ way, the re-configured Hall may well be a success. Yet it is difficult not to think that all the hoopla about how physically inviting the venue will be—an elegant Starbucks where you want to go for coffee (and wine!)  is not a mask for the fear that the acoustics will still be a problem. Or acoustics may simply mask the real problem: audience.