The Sacred Ground Of a Fine Concert Hall
Prized internationally for its acoustics, Jordan Hall comes under scrutiny after restoration, and everyone's a critic
Renovating a famous concert hall is delicate business. The patrons, music critics, and musicians who revere it each have their own memories about the warmth and depth of the sound. The hall is sacred ground to them.Skip to next paragraph
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Concert halls are the air-space into which live music expands and rebounds, and musicians and critics set great store by particular spaces, such as New York's Carnegie Hall and Boston's Symphony Hall and Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC).
''Musicians don't like playing in a 'dry' hall,'' says NEC president Laurence Lesser, who is a cellist. He defines a dry hall as a place where the sound stops where it is played - at the musicians. In a good hall ''you have a bottom to the sound,'' he says, ''a clarity, and an ability for the musicians to hear one another.''
People value such halls so highly that any tampering of the physical space often calls up dire predictions about what may happen to the trademark sound.
That's exactly what occurred two weeks ago at the reopening of the restored Jordan Hall. Critics' pens were poised to write that the facility had not come through the restoration unscathed.
The hall was built in 1903 by Wheelwright and Haven, and is about a decade younger than Boston's Symphony Hall and 12 years younger than Carnegie Hall. But Jordan Hall, which has hosted such notable performers as Marian Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals, Aaron Copland, and Isaac Stern, was a grande dame in need of a makeover. Ninety years of dust had accumulated, the seats were rickety, and the hall's lack of air conditioning made it uncomfortable.
Jordan Hall is intended to be a performing space inside a school, and the NEC's classrooms and offices enfold the hall itself. (NEC was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994.) Each of its 1,000 seats is remarkably close to the stage. The conservatory campaigned to raise $25 million for scholarships, projects, and operating funds, out of which $8.2 million was budgeted for Jordan Hall's restoration. The work began in summer and was completed six months later.
Mr. Lesser and his colleagues were determined that no structural changes would be made that could interfere with the hall's acoustics. NEC brought in architect Ann Beha and acoustician R. Lawrence Kirkegaard (who also consulted on post-1986 restoration adjustments to Carnegie Hall.)
Jordan Hall's gleaming new presence was displayed at a coming-out party on Oct. 27. The hall looks spectacular. Every surface has been cleaned and renewed. Plaster repaired. Gold leaf restored. The feeling of being in a dark, wooden cave is gone. Restorers uncovered the original color scheme - an off-white for the plaster ceiling and a jade-green for the arch over the stage. The air conditioning is noiseless. Seats are comfortable.
So what's the problem? For some people, the music doesn't resonate in the hall as it used to. Critics pointed out a brightness and harshness to the sound that hadn't been there. A pianist who has played in Jordan Hall, and who was present at the reopening concert, said that while it was too soon to judge, a certain ''bright'' quality did seem present.