Concert Hall Conundrums

If you ever wondered whether or not a concert hall can influence an orchestra’s future then the round of concert hall related events this past season may help you draw some conclusions. 

Building, maintaining, and refurbishing concert halls are already a big business and it continues to grow on a regular basis.  A concert hall isn’t just an acoustic chamber where you sit and listen to your local orchestra, it’s also a place which either invites you to return with a comfortable, warm atmosphere or gives you that one last reason you need to just stay home and watch whatever is on cable.

In the April 11th, 2005 issue of the Denver Post, Kyle MacMillan reports that Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall is in dire need of a major renovation.  The article says that the consultants hired to evaluate the hall concluded,

“There is a consensus that the concert experience for patrons at Boettcher is not ideal and is in many ways unpleasant The lobby area is rather narrow, lacking in both grandeur, spaciousness and comfort.”

And that’s before you even set foot into the acoustic chamber, for that part the consultants concluded,

“Throughout our interview process, comments concerning the acoustics of the hall were uniformly negative. … The listening impressions of the Artec team confirmed the comments.”

I’ve been to Boettcher Concert Hall before and I would have to agree with all of those conclusions.  The last masterworks concert I attended there some years ago barely had 60% attendance.  As such, I took the opportunity to move around to several different seats in order to determine if what I perceived as a muddy, lethargic sound improved. 

Unfortunately, it didn’t and I spent the concert feeling like I was listening to the orchestra while nursing a nasty head cold.  The real negative aspect was that in some of the pieces the orchestra sounded great, but I always had an annoying, nagging feeling that I wasn’t getting everything I should be getting out of the hall.

Overall, it didn’t make me, a seasoned listener, want to return and if I were a causal patron attending one of my first classical music concerts, that experience could very well be a kiss of death.  Given the level of high fidelity the average listener is afforded with home theatre systems, the typical listening ear is much more sensitive, and less forgiving, than it used to be.

Even the big budget orchestras don’t always end up with a golden egg.  In Philadelphia, the “still has its new-hall smell” Verizon Concert Hall inside the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts has been noticed in the press over recent months because of a study conducted by the same outfit hired to evaluate Boettcher Concert Hall.

The consultants pinned down possible solutions to what many patrons believe is the hall’s inability to hit you with the raw force that is the Philadelphia Orchestra.  If you’ve ever heard the Philadelphia Orchestra perform live you know what that impact can sound like and there’s no way to get it but to listen to them in person; so it’s no surprise that many regular Philly fans are left unsatisfied.

Fortunately, the proposed solutions for Verizon Hall aren’t nearly as drastic as for Boettcher, where it was recommended that one solution could be scooping out everything on the inside and start from scratch.

Nevertheless, there have been just as many success stories.  In Los Angeles, the Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall has been a big hit in and out of the classical music world.  Although the shiny metallic skin on the outside of the building required some subduing, the hall has opened to rave reviews. 

It’s become such a hit that even the mainstream television show, The Simpson’s, produced an entire episode spoofing the success story.

A few time zones to the East in Chicago, another Gehry designed concert hall has been enjoying an equal amount of success.  The Jay Pritzker Pavilion inside of Millennium Park in downtown Chicago is home to the Grant Park Music Festival. After opening mid way through last summer’s festival, the facility has received positive reviews in the press and from patrons by way of substantial increases in attendance numbers.

According to James W. Palermo, Artistic and General Director for the Grant Park Music Festival,

[The Jay Pritzker Pavilion] is an incredible space acoustically, so much so that the patron’s enjoyment of our concerts is greatly improved.  Even though the orchestra is as good as it always has been the new hall makes them sound even better.  There’s definitely a new sense of excitement among patrons and players by having the hall in Millennium Park. 

We’ve more than doubled and sometimes tripled our average attendance from past seasons; on average, up to 12,000 attended the outdoor concerts.  We expect that our membership seating will be near or at capacity for all of our 2005 concert season. 

The new hall has also helped bring in new sponsors.  Everyone likes a winner and as such, we’ve been approached by a number of organizations for increased sponsorships.

Concert halls can bring their resident ensembles pleasure or heartache but in the end they’re still just tools.  And a tool without a craftsman is just a hunk of metal and wood; just ask some of the folks in Miami.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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