S&H Festival review

LUCERNE SUMMER FESTIVAL 2001

Part 1: Sound in Silence - the acoustics of the KKL Concert Hall at Lucerne (PGW)



Lucerne Concert Hall with reverberance chamber doors open

The two dominant presences at Lucerne, for a perceptive first time visitor to its prestigious summer music festival on the shore of Lake Lucerne, are the French architect Jean Nouvel who, after a two year hiccup, was persuaded in 1992 to take over the KKL project - he'd won a competition to design the new Culture and Conference Centre Lucerne but, as is often the way, had not been awarded the contract! - and Russell Johnson, New York concert hall designer and founder of ARTEC (www.artec-usa.com), whose Lucerne project was the culmination of thirty years of acoustic design, combining there 'everything I had learned' from building some 45 major halls, including Symphony Hall at Birmingham.

I was provided with a press pack of absorbing interest about the tri-partite Centre (available from info@kkl-luzern.ch), which whetted my appetite to learn more.

Normally festival and concert reviews are devoted mainly to music and its performance, as Seen & Heard in a wide variety of listening situations. At Lucerne, the new lakeside concert hall was itself the star, practically upstaging the musicians who all delighted in appearing there. It is therefore appropriate to introduce this two-part report with explanations of the acoustic concepts and their triumphant realisation, as gleaned at a breakfast time meeting with the doyen of contemporary acousticians, Russell Johnson, followed by his invitation to a rehearsal by the NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo and Charles Dutoit, with a rare opportunity to eavesdrop upon Martha Argerich and the conductor (her former husband) trying to reach a rapprochement as to how some passages of Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3 should go. More talk afterwards with two of Johnson's colleagues in ARTEC made the day become a veritable introductory crash course into the arcane and controversial world of state-of- the-art concert hall acoustics!

I was urged by Russell to stress the key role of the Project Director in concert hall planning and negotiations. At Lucerne he had enjoyed working in a notably harmonious triumvirate with Jean Nouvel and Dr Thomas Held, who represented the funding authorities of city, province and the hotel and restaurant industry of this small city of some 60,000 inhabitants. Held never wavered from a commitment to quality and the six years of three-way collaboration were a constant pleasure.

The bottom line in Russell Johnson's ARTEC company's design philosophy is absolute silence within any new auditorium for which they are prepared to become a member of the design team, and that, says Johnson, can only be achieved with non-stop attention to detail. In earlier years he had been allowed only some 15% of what he deemed desirable features to be incorporated; for Lucerne it was a gratifying 95%.

'The magical, mystical sounds of live music must be erected on a foundation of silence, not through a light fog of intruding noise. All annoying noises must be conquered, vanquished' - in an interview earlier this year about Artec's Kimmel Center project in Philadelphia, he cites nearly two dozen examples of those annoyances! (Readers might like to work out, from their own concert-going experiences, what those would have been?)

So extreme a position has not always made friends for the ARTEC acousticians. The firm's high standards of acoustic excellence, costly and puritanical ideals which are characteristic of 20/21 C scientific absolutism, have not always been endorsed or embraced by Europe-based acousticians, who - surprisingly to Johnson - allow a measure of intrusive noise.

Artec's demanding standards relate but little to the musical world in which great music of the past was originally heard, nor indeed to the compromises which are intrinsic to the hurly-burly of concert life in a busy city like London, where performers need to adapt to numerous differing and far from perfect acoustics encountered, and seasoned concertgoers get to know which are the best seats for listening. However, there is no dissent from broadcast and recording engineers, for whom Lucerne is an ideal venue sonically, and one where the absence of outside interference minimises the need for retakes!

Johnson has learnt from unsatisfactory experiences in earlier projects, reluctantly undertaken, aimed to improve the acoustics in existing halls, and he has declined pressing invitations to do so in several cities including London. Having in such assignments achieved small, possible improvements within the constraints of the situations (exactly as set out in his working briefs), he found himself criticised later for not having done magically better than ever could have been possible!

Total silence is a rare and treasurable experience, which is hard to convey. Within it, pianists can exploit the quietest of pianissimi, yet the sound at Lucerne reaches the highest, most distant seats clearly. Lars Vogt's tender Mozart andante cantabile encore from K330 faded to a palpable silence in which you became aware of sound within your own body, as is reported by people who have spent time in anechoic chambers. Likewise with the magical threads of sound conjured from a sho for Takemitsu's Ceremonial, their emergence and nienti reminding us of a comparable experience available to visitors to the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music. A disused Yorkshire coal mine nearby is now a mining museum; down at the bottom of the coal shaft visitors are invited briefly to savour for a few minutes total darkness in total silence; an eerie, palpable and beautiful experience, unavailable on the earth's surface.

The new Concert Hall is located at the tourist hub of the city, next to the Railway Station - architect Calatrava, admired in Bilbao recently - and opposite the piers with the hubbub of people enjoying themselves and ships noisily letting off steam, so initial prerequisites were separation of the main auditorium from the exterior world, including the other parts of the KKL complex, and service ducts dimensioned to preclude turbulent noise, with an air conditioning ventilation system which operates well below audible levels. Access to the auditorium is via light and sound locks, with a series of three thick, perfectly fitted doors between circulation areas and the interior.

With those small considerations out of the way, Johnson explained, one can go on to plan for sonic needs, which in the new Millennium will increasingly be for 'flexibility, versatility and adjustability'. The 1,840 seat Lucerne hall's visual beauties, and its numerous innovations, are all intimately related to acoustic requirements. Basing the design upon the hallowed 'shoe box' shape of the best 19th Century concert halls, Johnson has over the years learnt that 900 seats are too few to accommodate full orchestral sound (Karajan told him that he never programmed Mahler, Bruckner or Strauss in the Musikvereinsaal because those works overwhelm the hall), and halls of more than around 2,200 to 2,300 seats are too large for best results. Johnson's optimum range is from 1,650 to 2,050, with around 1,800 preferred. (If calculations based upon population suggest a need for 4,000 or more seats, the city really needs two or more halls, he says, not just one huge one.)

The Lucerne Concert Hall walls are lined with a myriad plaster tiles, developed to control very high frequency harshness. Variable features make possible tailor-made reverberation specifications for each individual concert or stage set-up. Behind the visible walls are 8,000 cubic metres of reverberance chamber, which increases the 'cubage' of the hall by more than a third. Their over fifty hinged doors can be opened from a master console a little, to 45 or to a full 90, to increase reverberation time yet without compromising clarity thereby. Of crucial importance, and visually conspicuous, is the height-adjustable two-part ceiling or 'canopy' over the stage, which benefits listeners and musicians alike. Lowered, it increases sound energy and articulation on the main floor for solo and duo recitals, chamber groups and ensembles up to about 40 players. A mid position serves for moderate sized orchestras and the highest elevation in the range for major symphonies and choral works. Instrumentalists and singers can 'hear themselves' in a way which enhances their own confidence and communication with the audience immeasurably; conductors have been surprised to find, when checking sound out in the auditorium, that it sounds very similar on the podium. The reverberance chamber and the canopy over the performers work together in harmony, and can be balanced to achieve the desired result for each event, with the listening ear the final arbiter.

During the Festival, 'Russ' Johnson is a constant, friendly presence at rehearsals and concerts, as he had been at Birmingham, where he rented a flat next door to Symphony Hall for fifteen months after opening day.

Fabric curtains are employed during rehearsals (and for concerts of electronically amplified music) to simulate sound absorption by concert audiences, and the reverberation chamber doors are opened to prescribed patterns, subject to adjustment during the day. Detailed logs are kept, as meticulously as those at sea, notating the set-up for each concert and the works played that night. This is a cumulative source for use by the hall's own music staff during the rest of the year. You simply look up the set-up that was last used for, say, a memorably successful Mahler concert, and replicate it for a concert of similar music.

There is one small snag - the financial imperative! For anticipated sell-out concerts and recitals (there are many of those during the Festival) the technicians and box office keep in touch for late decisions to keep the canopy higher, so as not to compromise sight lines from the higher galleries. Even so, listeners anywhere in Lucerne's spectacularly beautiful Concert Hall will still be far better off than others in most conventional concert halls, and particularly 'those 4-6,000 seat monstrosities which were built in USA during the euphoria after the First World War', says Johnson, who (now in his mid-seventies) remains optimistic about the future for serious and symphonic music, countering prophets of doom with statistics of the proliferation of orchestras and opera companies all around the world of increasingly high standard. With halls like his, live music making is well placed to fight back against dominance of recorded musical fare.

The 2001 Summer Festival has three weeks to run after our visit, with Mutter and Barenboim amongst the recitalists, and a procession of great orchestras still to come from Oslo, Amsterdam & Milan; Stuttgart, Berlin & Vienna; Boston and Chicago with world leading conductors and soloists. Even though some of them will be stopping off during the touring season at London (Argerich, Dutoit & the Tokyo NKO went straight on from Lucerne to the Proms) and Edinburgh, a pilgrimage to Lucerne for the special experience of hearing them in the Nouvel/Johnson hall is well worth considering. The Lucerne Festival must surely become the European Mecca for music loving cognoscenti.

For a late summer city break abroad, Lucerne can be reached with ease by frequent, comfortable and reliable trains from Zurich Airport in about 1 hours. Cheap combined ticket deals from the UK are available through Swissair and no-frills companies. If concert ticket prices seem to be rather higher than in the UK, this can be balanced by better value accommodation and lower meal prices than we are able to find back home.

Lucerne is a very special place. Well preserved reminders of its historically important past, some dating back to the medieval period, still abound in this beautiful lakeside town ringed by mountains. There are many ways to augment musical experiences with forays into the beauties of nature. Venerable paddle steamers glide elegantly across the water to connect with a myriad of cable cars, cog funiculars and chair lifts to whisk passengers up into the higher regions. Marked footpaths criss-cross all possible, as well as seemingly impossible, terrains. In town, a number of excellent museums and parks with bathing beaches can also provide a variety of experiences.

Seen & Heard can recommend highly a stay at the Lucerne Festival. You are unlikely to be disappointed.

Peter Grahame Woolf

See programme details at www.lucernefestival.ch or ticket availability from ticketbox@lucernefestival.ch. Many of the concerts are taken by Radio Schweitze DSR2 http://www.schweizerradiodrs.ch for simultaneous or later broadcasting, and there was also a BBC R3 presence whilst I was in Lucerne.

Part Two (reviews of Lucerne Festival concerts 15-26 August) to follow.


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