The catalyst for change was a pragmatic problem, not an artistic one, but the important consequence is that Atlanta’s Symphony Hall is now sporting a new $500,000 acoustical shell on its stage. Every indication so far is that it’s a shell of an improvement.
In May 2012, the entertainment engineering firm Clark/Reder was brought in to do an inspection and determined that to guarantee the safety of everyone onstage, the existing shell needed to be replaced. That was hardly a surprising conclusion. The shell was original to Symphony Hall when the Woodruff Arts Center opened in 1968, so it was 44 years old.
“It was pretty rickety, it was in danger of falling over,” says Tom Sherwood, the ASO principal percussionist who was on the musician’s committee that provided input on the shell project.. “For a while they were strapping it to the rigging overheard so it couldn’t fall. It was not that great of a shell to begin with. It was really thin.”
As much derided as the shell has been, at the time it was built it was experimental and cutting edge, one of only two prototypes of its kind manufactured by the Wenger Corporation, a well-known maker of acoustical shells. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra got one and the Omaha Symphony got the other.
It was, however, never intended to be used long term. In 1982, then-Music Director Robert Shaw implored the ASO board to replace it. Nothing was done, though there were some attempts to make superficial modifications along the way. It finally took the safety imperative to force the design and construction of a new shell. When contacted about the old one, the people at Wenger reportedly were floored that the orchestra was still using it.
The firms of Auerbach Pollock Friedlander and Threshold Acoustics were engaged to consult and design the new acoustical shell. Theatrical equipment manufacturer and engineering firm SECOA was charged with its construction and installation. Shop drawings went out in June of this year, and construction began in July. Installation was completed two weeks ago, and the orchestra held its first rehearsal in the new shell last week.
Given the financial wranglings the orchestra has gone through recently, one of the first questions was how it could afford $500,000 for the shell. The good news is that the entire project is fully funded, thanks to anonymous donors. It is a capital fund completely unrelated to the ASO’s operating budget and has zero impact upon it.
ASO Vice President and General Manager Julianne Fish, who has overseen the project, is keen to point out that it has been a “wholly collaborative effort” involving not only acousticians and contractors but the musicians, conductors and stage crew, as well as ASO administrators. “Tom [Sherwood] and I correspond all the time,” Fish says. “We all worked together and everybody has that opportunity to continue to communicate with one another both onstage and offstage. I just think it’s very positive on many, many fronts.”
Dawn Schuette of Threshold Acoustics says that tests and adjustments will be made during rehearsals in order to get the onstage acoustics just right before opening night this Thursday. “What we’re going to be doing is listening, spending time with the orchestra and the chorus,” Schuette explains. “We’ll be talking with musicians quite a lot about how they’re feeling about the configuration of the shell. We’ve done an initial set of the walls, the ceiling angle. We want to make sure everybody’s hearing each other the best that they can.”
The new shell is expected to accomplish several things. First, it will mean a safe and secure new system. It should mean an improvement in the hall’s acoustics, both onstage among the musicians and in the projection of sound out into the room. It will allow the versatility and flexibility to easily change set-ups for variously sized orchestras and the orchestra with chorus. Finally, it offers a visual aesthetic that is warmer, largely through incorporation of wood, and improves the evenness of lighting onstage and makes the hall and stage feel more closely connected and unified.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Fish declares. “The wood on the bottom is beautiful and the color of the top part of the towers is very, very similar to the color in the hall, so there is a nice continuity to the space.”
“The look is a billion times better,” says Sherwood. “It already feels more like an orchestra hall stage, more organic than before.”
Associate Principal Violist Paul Murphy concurs. “It looks beautiful,” he says. “It’s a dramatic visual enhancement to the hall.”
But the all-important change is in the sound. Musicians have long complained that it is difficult to hear one another on the stage, and the hall’s acoustics have left much to be desired. “The sound is more immediate; there is more bloom,” Murphy says. “Personally, I find it easier to make a quality sound, especially in quiet dynamics. I am hearing other sections of the orchestra much more easily, especially the woodwinds and the double basses.”
Murphy says the change has made a bigger difference than he’d expected. “So far, I’m delighted,” he says. “There obviously will be some slight adjustments to be made by the acousticians, and most likely adjustments we will make over time with our playing, too. But it’s all positive.”