Blog: What makes concert halls great?

By Barry Kempton

Last week I wrote about moving our International Artist Series to the new Ordway Concert Hall in the 2015-16 season.  We have three straightforward reasons for moving from the 1900-seat Music Theater to the 1100-seat Concert Hall under construction next door:

  • The Concert Hall will have a superior acoustic for recitals and chamber music (and of course for the Chamber Orchestra.)
  • It will be more intimate.
  • There will be more availability of dates in which to schedule our concert series.

Moving our recital series to a smaller space raises an interesting question as to what really is the optimal size of venue for acoustic classical music.  Much solo recital and chamber music was originally written for performance in people’s homes.  This music was not only for one’s guests’ entertainment but also for entertaining oneself in the days before television and movies.  Anyone who has had the privilege of listening to great performers in a private home knows that regardless of any acoustic limitations caused by soft materials like carpet and upholstery, such an experience can be unforgettable.

I’ve been fortunate to experience many of the world’s great indoor concert venues varying in size from Wigmore Hall’s 500 seats to the Royal Albert Hall (audience capacity over 5000).  My first 25 years in the music profession were with three chamber orchestras (Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the St Paul Chamber Orchestra and City of London Sinfonia), all of which toured extensively throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Few would argue with the assertion that Wigmore Hall is one of the great concert halls of the world in which to listen to smaller-scale classical music.  My predecessor the late Bruce Carlson even installed a small marquee above our recital room in Landmark Center to pay homage to Wigmore Hall’s memorable iron and glass canopy.  It is certainly possible for smaller venues to have inferior acoustics (should I name some?) and larger venues to have superior acoustics – Vienna’s 2800-seat Musikverein springs to mind, but in general, it’s fair to say that the larger the venue, the harder it is to design a classical music venue with both intimacy and good acoustics.

The growth in size of performance venue has of course been driven to a large extent by economy of scale.  Providing room for larger audiences increases your potential revenue but barely affects your costs (apart from needing a few more front of house staff).  But you do lose the intimacy and that is for many, I believe, as important a factor as the acoustic when it comes to recitals and chamber music.  Additionally, if a large venue is only half full, then the overall audience experience can be negative because of the lack of atmosphere.

Andy Luft, the Ordway’s Director of Production (who is also overseeing the construction project) told me a couple of weeks ago that the audience member who will be sitting in the furthest row from the stage in the new Concert Hall (in the back row of the second balcony) will be as close to the stage as the person who currently sits in the front row of the first balcony in the existing Ordway Music Theater.  As soon as we have a roof of the new hall (which is soon!), I am excited to go back into the site, as I think we will then for the first time, get to sense really how small and intimate the space is, even though its capacity will be nearly 1100.

A few of my current favorite venues for classical music – near and far – are:

  • Ted Mann Concert Hall at the U of M
  • Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis
  • Wigmore Hall, London
  • City Halls, Glasgow
  • Musikverein, Vienna
  • Suntory Hall, Tokyo
  • Kammermusik Saal at the Berlin Philharmonie

I’d be interested to know what your favorite concert halls are (and why).

Learn more about the Ordway Concert Hall here.

(Image above: Wigmore Hall, London)