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Calling the audible

Russell Johnson's Play-by-play Method Tunes The New Orange County Hall To What's Onstage. The Results Of His Strategy Remain To Be Heard.

September 10, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

NEAR the end of 2001, one of the nation's most eagerly awaited concert venues opened in Philadelphia. Much of the excitement about the $235-million Verizon Hall, part of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, was driven by a pair of tag-team stars: the elegant Uruguayan-born architect Rafael Vinoly and the American acoustician who is probably the world's most famous, Russell Johnson.

But the opening, by many accounts, was a disaster. Apart from temperatures so cold that shivering women fled their expensive seats to huddle beside a restroom heater, the sound was deemed equally benumbed, described as "seriously short of sonic warmth" by Scott Cantrell of the Dallas Morning News and "an acoustical Sahara" by the Washington Post's Tim Page.

The hall's reputation suffered so badly that when music administrator Mervon Mehta arrived to take a job there a few weeks after the opening, the cabdriver he hailed responded, "The Kimmel Center? Where they have that really awful sound?"

Mehta, the center's vice president for programming and education, now insists that Verizon, after some fiddling, has become one of the nation's most appealing such venues. But almost five years later, as the Cesar Pelli-designed, $200-million Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall is poised to open in Costa Mesa, with the same acoustician behind it, many wonder: Are we in for the same kind of ride?

Whether Orange County risks a repetition of the debacle in Philadelphia is impossible to say, even as Johnson and the project's other principal acoustic designer, Damian Doria, sit in the new hall making slow, intricate adjustments.

Johnson, 82, whose bushy eyebrows and round belly give him the aspect of a slightly curmudgeonly hobbit, says he has no comment on what happened in Philadelphia. He once predicted that Segerstrom would be "the brother or sister" of Verizon Hall.

Yet Verizon aside, the New York-based Johnson commands enormous respect as one of the founders of what's known as variable acoustics. His designs for the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and Symphony Hall in Birmingham, England, for instance, are widely celebrated.

The press materials for the firm he founded in 1970, Artec Consultants, contain glowing quotes about Johnson-designed halls from conductor Kent Nagano, pianist Murray Perahia and singer Cecilia Bartoli. Even the skeptical critic Norman Lebrecht credits Artec's hall in Lucerne, Switzerland, with accommodating "just about every degree of clarity the human ear can detect."

Perhaps appropriately for a man credited with having some of the best ears in the world, Johnson's original vision for acoustical perfection came from listening.

But he wasn't hearing concerts in the world's great venues: Johnson grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where he loved building treehouses and fitting out caves and where the most prominent acoustic space was the school band's rehearsal hall. Still, he pursued music actively, taking in the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts as a teenager and, when stationed with the Army in the Philippines during World War II, catching concerts in an old movie theater in Manila.

After the war, while he was working as a recording engineer and then studying architecture and drama at Yale, his long-standing interests in science and the arts came together and inspired him to learn about, and to aim to design, acoustics for music and theater. But he'd never been to Europe before he started his career as an acoustician, and his trips to the great halls of New York and Boston were few.

Rather, Johnson remembers introducing himself to the director of a high school band as an acoustician. The man's response, as Johnson recalls: "Oh, I'm glad you're here -- so I can strangle you." He heard this kind of frustration from almost every conductor and musician he spoke to at the time, and for good reason.

"Most halls for symphonic music in the United States, starting in the early '20s, had enormous seat counts, wide rooms, one balcony only and low ceilings," he says. The post-World War I building boom was largely inspired by the idea that a single hall could offer opera, concert music, ballet and other performing arts -- a recipe, in short, for acoustical disaster.

"Worldwide travel was not very common then," he says. "Americans had no way to compare their acoustical experiences with what they could hear in the great halls of Europe."

But as more American musicians began to travel internationally in the '50s, Johnson started to detect a consensus about the great late-19th century halls: Vienna's Musikverein followed by Amsterdam's Concertgebouw followed by Boston's Symphony Hall. Most of the venues championed by musicians were built from 1840 to 1905, seated about 2,000 spectators and had multiple balconies, high horizontal ceilings and parallel side walls.

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