Jones Hall and Why Architecture Matters to Musicians

A concert hall is the instrument that all musicians “play”. Whether produced by bowing, blowing, plucking, striking, or phoning, a grand hall brings sonic personality to an instrument’s distinctive timbre. And the personality of a room depends on its acoustic properties.

To improve its acoustics and infrastructure, Jones Hall is undergoing a necessary update; a project that is billed, “Opening to the future”. Begun in 2020, this $50 million renovation takes place during the summer months, so regular season performance schedules are uninterrupted.

Inaugurated in 1966, this award-winning room was then considered state-of-the-art. And with 800 adjustable acoustic modules in the ceiling, it had the most advanced sound technology at the time. This allowed the room’s acoustic properties to be modified to meet the needs of various presenters, including Symphony Orchestra, Opera, Ballet, Houston Performing Arts, and other touring performers.

Interestingly, the highest-rated concert halls of all time were those built before 1900. Their secret: rectangular or shoebox-shaped, with often heavily ornate hard surfaces and lightly padded seats. Often considered the best in the world, the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria. This ornate 1,744-seat hall opened in 1870. “It is certainly the most beautiful hall in the world,” said conductor Bruno Walter. “She has beauty and power. I didn’t realize music could be so beautiful.”

So what happened?

Architects designing performance spaces in the 1960s wanted to break away from tradition and began to experiment using advances in science and technology, hoping for something innovative and new. However, over the years these innovations have not quite lived up to expectations and changes have had to be made in most rooms of this vintage.

Why are these changes necessary and important?

Consider that acoustics for musicians is as essential as water for swimmers. An acoustically comfortable environment enhances every aspect of performance, allowing musicians to hear their own instrument or voice, and balance it with others. It blends instruments rather than blurring them, making every timbre clear and distinct. Players can then adjust expression, dynamics, and tuning, resulting in optimal artistry and a more sensory listening experience.

Like the unique shape and construction of individual instruments, which give each a distinct timbre, a great hall has its own sound, and each is different. In recent years, musicians and acousticians have determined four essential elements necessary for an optimal performance hall:

1) Create sufficiently intense sound levels (for strong and smooth dynamics) that reach both the musician and the listener without distortion.

2) Early sound reflections sufficient for you to hear the sound milliseconds after it is played. To achieve this, sound is only reflected once or twice from ceilings, walls and floors.

3) Evenly distributed sound throughout the room, no matter where you sit, it’s of equal quality.

4) Reverb characteristics suitable for the music being played.

When the hall joins the orchestra.

The conductor must bring together a set of experts in his field – the players of the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion sections and the singers. Conductors must then add the unique sound of the concert hall to their interpretive vision. The room must be at the same level of quality as the musicians it serves. It’s not just a room; he becomes a performance actor.

Often composers have written their music with specific acoustics in mind; Handel Messiahfor the New Music Hall in Dublin, Bach’s Passion according to Saint Matthewfor St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, Faure’s Requiemfor the Madeleine church in Paris and that of Wagner The Ring of the Nibelungsfor his Bayreuth Festspielhaus, specially designed for his operas.

When performing specific styles of music, it is also helpful to know the performance location and what the composer expected to hear from the music. This informs the musicians of the sound ideal intended by the composer. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music was most often heard in smaller, more intimate spaces; many of Haydn’s symphonies, for example, were heard in a 400-seat theater on the Esterhazy estate. In the 19th century and beyond, halls grew, as did orchestras. by Mahler Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand), one of the greatest works in the repertoire, premiered in the 3,000-seat Musik-Festhalle in Munich.

Informed by the performing practices of each era and knowing the places of origin, musicians can make the necessary adjustments to blend, balance, articulate and formulate the music. All of this must be heard clearly in the performance space. In rooms without carefully planned acoustics, the performance will lack clarity. It will become generic and indistinct, making the experience for performer and listener less than optimal.

Iconic British conductor Sir Adrian Boult said: “The ideal room is obviously one in which you make a not very pleasant sound, and the audience receives something quite beautiful.” As Jones Hall continues these summer improvements, we can expect a revitalized concert experience; one that will give our ears a renewed opportunity to hear music at its finest.

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