Can the Concert Hall Be Reimagined?

By Richard Byrne

The concert hall’s centrality in our musical landscape often makes it hard to remember that anything existed before it. For musicians and audiences alike, the concert hall is a hallowed space, possessing a gravity and resonance that compels reverential silence and attention. Concert halls are vital anchors too: concrete reminders of community aspirations that hold traditions of excellence fast and secure.

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Illustration by Michael Woloschinow

Yet powerful shifts in audience expectations and technology now present new challenges for these unique spaces. Sarah Hoover (DMA ’08, Voice), Peabody’s special assistant to the dean for innovation, interdisciplinary partnerships, and community initiatives, says these challenges are very much in the air at Peabody, especially as the institute renovates its landmark Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall as it prepares to celebrate the venue’s 150th anniversary.

“How is the experience of attending and performing in a concert hall changing to meet new needs and patterns of consumption?” she asks. “Can we realign our training of students to meet those changes? How will new spaces — and new uses of old spaces — shape our future relationship with our community?”

In search of the possibilities, we asked leaders who are prominent in rethinking and renovating the concert hall and its experience for their visions of this task. Can we extend the richness of these structures to better connect with audiences — both now and in the future?

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Innovation in Miami: Audiences enjoy the New World  Symphony inside the New World Center. Photo by Rui Dias-Aidos

Discontented Forms

In our buzzed and buzzing culture, there is an irony to savor in recalling that the coffeehouse was a precursor of the concert hall. As Victoria Woodhouse observes in her book, Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls (The Monacelli Press, 2012), it was not until the mid-18th century that the concert hall displaced music rooms, salons, and public coffeehouses as the main site for musical performance.

“Generally, there is an awareness that new ideas are needed, but there is also resistance to change,” says Joshua Dachs, one of America’s premier designers of concert halls, opera houses, and theaters. “As the kind of work that is being made changes, as the artists that perform them and program them change, new spaces will be demanded and new institutions will emerge, along with new business models to sustain them.”

At Fisher Dachs Associates, Mr. Dachs is currently working on a redevelopment of Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher Hall), and his other work on the center’s campus includes the renovation of Alice Tully Hall. He argues that swinging the pendulum back to informality and pleasure may be a road map to reimagining the concert hall experience.

“The early concert hall was a kind of pleasure palace, where there was drinking, dining, dancing, and gambling, and there were bedrooms upstairs, and you came to hear the latest music; it was completely about new music in a festive and informal atmosphere,” says Mr. Dachs. “We have gotten so far away from that, that new audiences don’t want to come anymore. We need to find our way back to that, reduce formality and re-inject a focus on social engagement and pleasure into the evening.”

Indeed, the boom of popularity in orchestral works into the 19th and 20th centuries was part of what carried audiences away from informality into more serious — and even intimidating — spaces. As thousands thronged to hear music in concert halls, the quest for better and better acoustics at larger scale cemented the traditional “shoebox” design and created the grand ambitions for these spaces that remain with us to this day.

Yet while bold new halls, such as Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, still provide platforms for cities and architects to make brash aesthetic statements, Mr. Dachs says artists and institutions grappling with changing expectations of the concert experience are the engine of the process.

“It isn’t the designer’s job to rethink concert spaces,” Mr. Dachs says. “Unless it originates with the artists, it’s going to fail. We can’t look to architects, who are good at many things, to point the way to the future of concert hall design. We have to look to musicians and conductors and arts administrators.”

Profound changes have accelerated this discussion. Stretched budgets and a clamor to enlarge the repertoire are key pressure points. And there are challenges deeper still. The interaction sought by contemporary audiences often collides with prescribed modes of conduct. Technological innovations — from high-definition to virtual reality — intensify audience demands for an immersive and intensely vivid concert experience.

One of the most important developments in rethinking concert halls, says Mr. Dachs, is a realization that size does matter.

“I think a very healthy trend, even in the most conservative situations, has been to reduce seating capacity,” observes Mr. Dachs. “It used to be, back in the ’50s and ’60s, that it was assumed that bigger was better. That there would always be more audience. That foundation support would continue at the levels it was at previously. But then, of course, it was discovered that not only does that place people far away, but it compromises acoustics, for many reasons, partly because an orchestra makes just so much noise: If the space is big enough to hold a lot of people, it will be less impactful for each of them than it would be in a smaller space with fewer people.”

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Innovation in Miami: Audiences enjoy the New World Symphony outside at Miami Beach SoundScape Park, where performances are projected onto a 7,000-square-foot façade. Photo by Rui Dias-Aidos

Making It Work

Practical work in reimagining the concert hall and experience is under way. One of the most far-reaching and successful laboratories is the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy, which explores how lights, sound, video, and space can transform the concert experience in its home at the New World Center in Miami, Florida.

Howard Herring, president and CEO of New World Symphony, is charged with helping fellows at the institution — including many Peabody graduates — navigate the shifting currents of contemporary audience engagement with artistic rigor and alertness to interdisciplinary pathways. “The combining of multiple artistic disciplines is there to be done,” says Mr. Herring. “There are so many possibilities.”

The academy’s investigations of those possibilities extend from clever dual use of interior design — acoustic sails that double as video projection surfaces — to the creation of the Miami Beach SoundScape Park, where audiences can take in New World performances outdoors as they are projected onto a 7,000-square-foot façade.

“In the digital environment, flexibility has a high value,” says Mr. Herring. “You have to design for what you can’t predict.” Since New World Symphony’s Frank Gehry–designed center opened in 2011, he adds, “we have used all the capabilities of the space, and used it in ways that we didn’t foresee.”

Mr. Herring says the New World Symphony seeks to satisfy existing audiences and discover new audiences where they exist. “We imagine — and are succeeding in attracting — multiple audiences,” he says.

Finding new audiences where they are is also a driving force behind New York City’s (Le) Poisson Rouge — a 700-seat venue built in a space in the bustling West Village formerly occupied by the legendary jazz club the Village Gate.

“Cabaret seating, close proximity to the artists, and modest ticket prices are critical to what (Le) Poisson Rouge believes and how it functions,” says David Handler, co-founder of the New York music venue. “Listeners can come as they are, familiar with the repertoire or not, and hear world-class artists a few feet away.”

(Le) Poisson Rouge was designed by John Storyk, founding partner of Walters Storyk Design Group, who boasts credits as diverse as the Jazz at Lincoln Center and Jimi Hendrix’s legendary Electric Ladyland studio. “(Le) Poisson Rouge was designed not only to make the room sound its best,” says Mr. Handler, “but also to provide the acoustic versatility we require given the breadth of our programing — string quartets to punk rock, gamelan to electronic music.”

Melding disciplines and milieus is at the heart of the enterprise. “Historically speaking, it’s only relatively recently that the art experience and the social experience have existed apart from one another,” he observes. “(Le) Poisson Rouge was created to bring ‘art and revelry,’ as we affectionately refer to them, together; to give more spontaneity and social relevance to the arts and more substance to nightlife.”

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At (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York City, concertgoers enjoy cabaret seating and close proximity to artists.

Playing the Room

As institutions reimagine space with audiences firmly in mind, how those changes affect musicians presents another key issue.

“Sometimes it is musicians who are the most resistant to new ideas,” says Mr. Dachs.

For players who are intent on forging a successful career, for instance, the traditional concert hall has lost little of its prestige and credentialing influence. (Who doesn’t want to play Carnegie Hall?) But new spaces must convince musicians that they will sound their best and connect with audiences.

Larry Kirkegaard is one of the world’s most prominent acousticians, and he is working now with Peabody on the renovation of Friedberg Hall. He says he is excited by the “creative experimentation” in design and programming of concert halls, but he adds that enhancing the acoustical comfort zone for players is foundational to transforming those innovations into successes.

“What most players would like to find in a room is a sense that, whatever their instrument, they feel that they are almost playing the room,” says Mr. Kirkegaard. “That the room is like an ideal dance partner, moving with care, fidelity, and responsiveness.”

Mr. Kirkegaard says that finding the “just right” sound in any space is key to audience engagement. “Musicians want to play in a space that makes them feel supported and energized by the ease of of making a compelling sound,” he explains. “And it’s contagious. The audience senses that energy and feels connected.”

For Mr. Handler at (Le) Poisson Rouge, the value of live music is worth risking imperfections to make connections. “Acoustical perfection is certainly a worthy pursuit, but music that exists in real life — imperfections and all — is perhaps a more important, more relevant focus,” he observes. “Attempting to manufacture a perfect acoustic environment may itself be an illusion of control.”

It’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the very good, continues Mr. Handler. “There is no more controlled environment than listening to a studio album on headphones,” he observes, “but people want the subtlety, nuance, and imperfection of the live experience now more than ever.”

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Designer Joshua Dachs is currently working to renovate Alice Tully Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center. Photo credit: Iñaki Vinaixa

Increasing the Inventory

The efforts made to reimagine the traditional concert hall are, in a way, a powerful testimony to its continued centrality and resonance. Playing Friedberg Hall will remain a capstone of the conservatory experience at Peabody, for instance, and that precious experience will only be enhanced by the careful acoustical adjustments undertaken by Mr. Kirkegaard in its renovation.

Mr. Dachs says that institutions and musicians should not be seeking the retrenchment or the displacement of the concert hall, but rather undertake a quest to expand the number and kind of acoustically rich spaces in which audiences can encounter and enjoy music.

“The older ways of doing things may not completely disappear and be replaced, but they will inevitably be joined by new ways of doing things,” says Mr. Dachs. What there is room for right now is a concerted effort to find a middle ground. We talk about, ‘What’s missing in the inventory?’ You have high-end, 2,000-seat concert halls built on a traditional models, and small recital halls, and churches and coffeehouses, and that’s fine. What we don’t have is something in between. That’s where there’s room for invention: an 800- or 1,200-seat space that takes some sort of new approach, perhaps having to do with flexibility, or integrating food and beverage more. Who knows? But large enough to support ambitious work by larger ensembles, and small enough to be nimbler than a 2,000-seat formal concert hall can be.”

Rethinking the concert hall experience will certainly shape the future for Peabody audiences — and perhaps reshape the training of its conservatory students.

“Good performance will always be about connectivity to the listener,” says Mr. Handler, “no matter what the environment. [And] the need to engage one’s audience offstage is more important now than ever. Sometimes, I think owing to intensity of their training regimens, conservatory-trained musicians feel that having practiced and won prizes, their work is done. That their audience is waiting for them. But the work of finding one’s audience and being understood and supported by that audience is as important as playing well, and often begins after mastery of their instrument is achieved.”

Mr. Herring observes that New World Symphony fellows are eager to explore these new vistas. “At first, they are dumbstruck by the number of possibilities,” he says. “Then they let their imaginations consider the uncharted territory. We’re asking them to search for the richness in all these technological and multidisciplinary capabilities. And that is not an easy task, by the way.”

As concert spaces are debated, created, and reinvigorated by new ideas and technologies, Mr. Herring says they have the potential to achieve the richness, resonance, and relevance we still find in the traditional concert hall.

“We’re making new hallowed spaces, and we’re doing it across a broad spectrum,” says Mr. Herring. “We have a range of performance space sizes, large to small. We have formality, greater or lesser. We have proximity to audience, closer or farther away. We have concert durations, short or long. The freedom is both terrifying and exhilarating.

“You make a hallowed space not just by playing,” concludes Mr. Herring. “You make a hallowed space with all the points of connection that make a concert experience.”

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Designer Joshua Dachs is currently working to renovate Alice Tully Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center. Photo credit: Iñaki Vinaixa