in: Reviews

February 1, 2014

New Music, New Sound in the Brooks Hall

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Brooks Hall awaits performers (David Greisinger photo)

Brooks Hall awaits performers (David Greisinger photo)

Last Friday the Holy Cross music department celebrated the new Brooks Concert Hall with an eclectic combination of new and old music. The concert highlighted the strengths of the music faculty, as well as the acoustics of the newly renovated space.

The Music

Segments of music from Bach, Chopin, Golijov, Stravinsky, Schubert, Monk, Mozart, Korde, Arrell, and Haydn were played, and were to these admittedly biased ears, delightful. There were too many excellent performances to comment about, but for me the new pieces were especially moving.

The first was Mariel (2008) by Osvaldo Golijov, a piece inspired by forest light and the sudden death of the young wife of a good friend in a traffic accident. It was played with quiet passion by two fabulous musicians, Tom Schmidt on marimba, and Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello. Golijov introduced the piece personally with the story of how it was composed – and how the talents of the two musicians in rehearsing it had so moved his heart. He was absolutely right.

Shirish Korde, the head of the music department and the prime mover behind the strength of that department and the renovation of the hall, provided a raga titled “Joy” a movement of a violin concerto scored for modern instruments and tabla. The driving force was the tabla, played by Amit Kavthekar with fine sensitivity. Rhythms were ably echoed and enhanced by Saul Bitran, violin, Peter Sulski, viola, Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello, and Tom Schmidt, marimba.

Settings of Psalms 131, 43, and 113 by Chris Arrell, another Holy Cross composer, were sung by the Holy Cross Chamber Choir. They were all concerned with the monkey voice of self-doubt that lives in everyone’s head, and were quietly moving.

And I must mention two beautiful renditions of Schubert lieder by a very talented young tenor, Adam Ouellet, and Eric Culver, the indispensable accompanist, conductor, and a driving force behind the new hall renovation.

The Sound

Brooks Hall was once the main chapel of the college, with stained glass windows along the long walls. It still has a handsome, somewhat spiritual presence. When a new chapel was built, the older space was underutilized, and Shirish Korde found $400 in the budget to buy 200 Chinese chairs and configure the hall for concerts. Somewhat later risers were added in the back, and a few reflecting clouds were added over the stage. But the hall, configured as a shoebox with the performers at one end, had a reverberation time of 2.2 seconds. Musical detail was difficult to hear.

Plans were made in November of 2012 to renovate the hall. Some of the faculty had suggested changing the position of the players to the middle of the long north wall, but this configuration was frowned upon by the consulting acousticians. They wanted the same seating configuration as before, but with more overhead reflectors and perhaps an orchestra shell. Their plan was approved by the dean.

Such a plan is problematic. Most acousticians believe that clarity and loudness are improved by adding early reflections, but this is only correct when there are only a few prompt reflections, such as at an outdoor concert. Muddy sound is almost always due to too many reflections, and the earlier they come the more they disturb the sound. Putting a shell behind musicians in a venue such as Brooks will make the sound more unclear, not less, as we have learned while working on other venues. A long reverberation time also can muddy the sound, but can be pleasantly immersive if the reverberation is not too loud compared with the direct sound. Brooks Hall was too reverberant. The consulting acousticians recognized the need to add absorption—but where does one put it? Putting the absorption as close as possible to the musicians reduces the reverberant level by catching the sound from the backs of their instruments before it reaches the hall. Such a placement increases the strength of the direct sound while preserving the attractiveness of the late hall sound. Putting the absorption close to the musicians also attenuates many of the disturbing early reflections.

At the last minute Toby Mountain, a faculty member and a recording engineer, asked me if I could visit the hall and give a second opinion. I came, listened, sang and made binaural recordings as Eric Culver played the piano in both configurations. The music turned to a muddle between 15 and 20 feet from the performers, well before the seats on the risers. I erected a wall of absorbing curtains around the piano and, as expected, the clarity markedly improved. A successful meeting with the music faculty and the architect immediately followed.

Conductor Eric Culver nods (David Griesinger photo)

Conductor Eric Culver nods (David Griesinger photo)

We eventually worked with the architect to design the new configuration. Together we specified panels that looked like reflectors over the playing area – but they were really absorbers. We also specified drapes that would park between the stained glass windows behind the performers, but could be drawn to darken the room or adjust for a dryer acoustic.

The hall opened without the curtains for a few concerts this fall. It was immediately perceived as a success by both the faculty and the students. But with a half-full audience I was not entirely happy with the clarity. It was still a bit muddy in the more distant seats, and the piano tended to dominate ensembles. But last Friday everyone got to hear the hall with a full audience and the curtains in place. We were amazed and delighted by the sound. It was less reverberant than I had expected, but with plenty of warmth to make both audience and musicians comfortable. The clarity was superb. The hall has turned into a salon large enough for a goodly sized audience, but with an intimate connection between listener and player. One of the musicians told me it was a delight to play without forcing to be heard, fully knowing the audience was perceiving the subtle effects that make music live. We are all proud to have created this wonderful new space.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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