While acoustics deservedly get most of the attention, there are many other factors that make a venue great for classical music. While there’s a reasonable tendency to judge venues purely on their acoustic performance, particularly if there has been a major refurbishment like that at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, audiences have a much wider range of criteria. Regular attendees are both the strongest defenders and the harshest critics of their own spaces. Emergence of passionate bloggers only confuses the issue, given the limited experience of any individual – except perhaps the odd conductor.
Hamer Hall illustrates the point. The acoustics are greatly improved throughout the auditorium, there are more bars for interval drinks and the new seats are comfortable and look good. But there are complaints, ranging from the disappearance of the chandelier (replaced with a Christmas bauble, as more than one visitor saw it) to the lack of seating in the foyer and the brown masonite sheeting behind the stage in place of the great organ.
Clearly, subjective opinions of some concert-goers are based on widely divergent criteria. Thats hardly surprising when you consider that concert hall design involves many disciplines, including music, architecture, engineering, and the all-important audio. Designing new, modern purpose-designed spaces is clearly a different matter from working with venues that were not primarily intended for classical concerts.
Yet grand old buildings such as town halls may have compensations for less than perfect sound, not least of which is a sense of history. Australia has a good mix of the two.
Huw Humphreys, Director, Artistic Planning for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra saw the orchestra’s return to the Melbourne Town Hall as its base while Hamer Hall was refurbished as a positive. It was, after all, the MSOs original home, and many in the audience had their first experience of symphony concerts there.
While enthusing about Hamer Halls greatly improved acoustics, Humphreys also sees the range of venues used by the MSO as one of the great strengths of the orchestra. They include (as well as the homes mentioned) the beautiful and acoustically perfect Melbourne Recital Centre, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl for popular summer concerts, the Malthouse Theatre for the contemporary Metropolis festival – and even the rehearsal space, the Iwaki Auditorium at the ABC Melbourne studios.
While few cities can boast such a range of venues Humphreys remarks do give food for thought when considering the apparently simple question: what makes a good concert hall? The general perception is that the Sydney Opera House is Australias best concert venue. And so it is, if you judge it by the setting on the Harbour and the architecture that have earned it the title, one of the seven wonders of the modern world. That’s pretty hard to beat.
But opera lovers are still smarting from the change made in the 1960s to architect Utzon’s original design. The main hall (originally designed as a multipurpose opera/concert space) became a space solely for concerts, thus titled the Concert Hall. The minor hall, originally intended for stage productions, was changed to house operas and ballets and was called the Opera Theatre. Absurd as it may seem, the Opera Theatre is now too small to stage very large opera and ballet productions. The recent production of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt had to have music from the orchestra relayed from one hall to the singers in another, a makeshift solution for one of the worlds great opera houses.
As a point of comparison, among favourite concert halls in Europe (for audiences and conductors) are Vienna’s Musikverein and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. While Australia struggles to match buildings with such historic appeal, they can be found. Many ensembles favour Sydney’s City Recital Hall – or Angel Place, as it is known thanks to its location. A fine example of purpose-designed concert space within a historic building, Angel Place can be compared to Adelaide’s Elder Hall, one of Australias finest concert halls.
It’s in the grounds of the University of Adelaide and is central to the musical life of the city – as is another landmark heritage building, the Adelaide Town Hall. It is close to the Art Gallery, the South Australian Museum, and the State Library another plus for concert-goers who like the idea of an arts precinct. But, as you’d expect in the city that dreamed up the idea of an Arts Festival in Australia, Adelaide also offers more modern venues for classical performance. As in other cities, ensembles have also led their audiences to outdoor venues like the Botanic Gardens and the Zoo.
Hobarts Federation Concert Hall (opened in 2001) is described by Tourism Tasmania as a large, brass-plated cylinder [whose] once gleaming exterior has weathered with time along with the halls controversy. However visitors may regard the exterior of the building, the auditorium on two levels with a seating capacity of 1100 has recently had its acoustics revamped by the team responsible for the acclaimed Melbourne Recital Centre and most concert-goers will forgive almost anything for the sake of good sound.
The Perth Concert Hall, constructed 40 years ago and last year named as having Best Acoustics in Australia’ by Limelight Magazine, is a fine example of brutalist architecture with its solid opaque interior, giant projecting roof, and use of white off-form concrete. The auditorium features a specially commissioned 3000-pipe organ surrounded by a 160-person choir gallery and an audience seating capacity of 1729.
That’s a similar capacity to the Queensland Performing Arts Centre Concert Hall which describes itself as one of Australia’s most spectacular concert venues, with magnificent architecture and acoustics. Its also located on the South Bank to end all South Banks. Surrounded by the Parklands, with its lush foliage, public beach, lagoons and picnic areas, the precinct also has a vast and varying choice of cafes and restaurants for pre-concert dining.
The newly established Darwin Symphony Orchestra gave its first concert in 1989 and soon embraced its tropical Top End lifestyle by staging its first outdoor concert in Darwins Gardens Amphitheatre. The DSO can also be found at the Darwin Entertainment Centre Playhouse, which boasts that the superb acoustics, the rake of the auditorium, and good sight lines make every seat the best in the house. And seating raises a whole new area for judgement!
So if classical music venues are judged by setting, acoustics, ambience, interior design, seating, facilities, art works and more, how can you be sure your visit will be enjoyable? Simple. Its all about who’s on stage!