The first of these so-called sound-directed halls was the Salle Playel. Constructed in 1927 in Paris, it was a disappointment. But the principle on which it was based--shaping a hall to direct the path of sound--gained influence. A few examples built in the '30s, ranging in size from 1,955 seats to 2,839, proved more successful, but not consistently.
The end of World War II brought a concert-hall building boom. European halls had to be rebuilt. The United States saw a new hunger for cultural experience. The demand was for large halls, but with the best possible sound.
In the '50s and early '60s, acoustics became an especially important part of the promotional drama surrounding a new hall. The public's admiration for all kinds of technology swelled.
Thus it was front-page news in the New York Times when a Boston acoustician who had designed New York's Philharmonic Hall began testing it in May, 1962, five months before the opening.
"Shots From the Stage Will Be Heard by Dolls With Electronic Ears in a Test of Acoustics on Monday," the headline proclaimed.
The acoustician was Leo L. Beranek, a traditionalist who generally held to Sabine's Boston design. This would be a rectangular room with straight side walls and 2,400 seats. (The 2,600 seats Symphony Hall was designed to hold are less upholstered and placed closer together than seats used in such facilities today. The hall would probably hold closer to 2,100 seats, were they designed by standards used in Philharmonic Hall and most contemporary halls. Symphony Hall still uses the original seats, and the number of them is sometimes increased by a few dozen to accommodate larger audiences.)
In the New York Times article, Beranek sounded like someone who knew what he was doing: "Mr. Beranek has done a study of 54 concert halls and auditoriums around the world," the Times reporter wrote.
But opening night on Sept. 23 was one of agonizing discovery. Notes in the lower frequencies sounded weak. Musicians couldn't hear one another play. The outcry that followed was heard the world over.
Beranek took much of the blame in the debacle. Today, he says the situation was judged prematurely and people did not fully understand what had happened.
The architect had added 258 seats to the theater, pushing the walls into a barrel shape, despite Beranek's recommendations. A sound booth was also added at the last minute, further diluting the acoustic design, Beranek said in a telephone interview.
He was not given the chance he wanted to make adjustments, even though he always thought some adjustment might be needed. The interior of the hall, renamed Avery Fisher Hall, was entirely rebuilt under the acoustic guidance of Cyril M. Harris of Columbia University. Ironically, the end result was quite close to Beranek's original design--and Sabine's.
The episode made the price of acoustic compromise--in this case, 258 seats--shockingly clear. But economics only forced more daunting compromises upon acousticians in the following years.
\o7 The Rise of Multipurpose Halls
\f7 New York's Philharmonic Hall was purely a concert hall. The Lincoln Center complex had other theaters for opera or drama. Some communities find it financially impractical to build separate theaters for each function. So they settle for multipurpose halls, often with 2,000 or more seats, in which they try to present every kind of performance.
But different types of performers have varying acoustic needs. An orchestra generally wants reverberation. An actor likes a dry chamber where sounds won't have the aural afterglow that mars diction.
Many times, the theater designed to please everyone leaves enough people unhappy to spur costly corrective measures. In Los Angeles, a $3.5-million plan is being considered for the acoustic renovation of the 3,200-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a multipurpose facility.
Management, along with some musicians, says that the difficulties are relatively minor. But other musicians and conductors are quite critical. Thomas Stevens, the L.A. Philharmonic's principal trumpet, was quoted in The Times as saying that "dynamics tend to get lost" and has called the Pavilion an "acoustical turkey."
Columbia's Harris, perhaps America's best-known acoustician, says he refuses to design multipurpose theaters as a matter of course, finding that they impose a degree of compromise he does not tolerate. Aside from his efforts on Avery Fisher Hall in New York, Harris has been praised for his work at Washington's Kennedy Center.
Other acousticians have not abstained from the problems of designing multipurpose theaters but have tried to come to terms with them. The search for new methods has led to theaters with movable walls and ceilings.
The first extensive use of this acoustic method came in 1966, at the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in Houston.