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What you need to know for 12/10/2017

Region's great concert halls have own special qualities

Region's great concert halls have own special qualities

EMPAC, Music Hall, Massry, Zankel lauded
Region's great concert halls have own special qualities
EMPAC at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Photographer: Peter Aaron/ESTO

The Capital Region is home to many music performance spaces. It’s not something most communities can brag about.

“It is such a bounty,” said David Alan Miller, the music director for the Albany Symphony Orchestra. “Many orchestras feel they want to have one venue as a home but we’ve several. It’s a luxury.”

What makes a concert hall great, however, is not that it’s just visually beautiful but that its acoustics are superb. So what are acoustics?

Specifically, acoustics are about the volume or loudness of a sound, how well it reverberates or is reflected off the hall’s walls and ceiling, and whether the high frequencies (high notes) and the low frequencies (the bass notes) balance out for the listener, a result called equalization.


A hall’s size, shape, ceiling height, depth of the walls, seat construction and what the seats are covered with, flooring, heating/air conditioning vents, weight of the hall’s doors, isolation from surrounding structures, and design of the walls and ceiling all affect its acoustics. 

For this article, four concert halls were chosen to detail how different designs produced specific results: In 1875, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall opened.  In 2008, the Massry Center for the Arts at The College of Saint Rose and the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute opened. In 2010, the Zankel Music Center at Skidmore College opened.


“Ambiance, clarity, loudness, spaciousness, intimacy, envelopment . . . we were looking for these,” said Gerald Marshall of Marshall-KMK Acoustics, Ltd., the firm that handled the acoustic design for the Helen Filene Ladd Concert Hall at Zankel. “We worked along with architect Charles Belson as a design team. We paid attention to detail.”

The shape of the hall is called shoebox, which is thought to support and direct sound and is the shape used in all the halls represented here. Walls made of a blonde-colored bamboo veneer over plywood are slanted back from a 90-degree angle. Suspended ceiling panels called clouds are separated from the actual ceiling by about 15 feet. The cloud method, which is used also at Massry, allows for bass frequencies to pass through them, evolve and develop volume before reflecting back to the listener. Higher frequencies reflect off the walls, which bass frequencies pass through.

From the stage, the back of the hall’s center shifts to the right and seats are not lined up. The building the hall is in is separated from the lobby’s building by four inches.

“Nothing is symmetrical,” said Shawn Dubois, the tech director. “And the gap isolates the hall. A jazz combo can be playing in the lobby but in the hall you can’t hear them.”

What is most unique about the hall is the glass wall behind the stage. Glass rings when hit, so Marshall had the inner two sections of it bonded with a clear plastic dampening membrane that eliminates the ring. It makes for a visually beautiful outdoor scene, but most performers use shells to project their sound, Dubois said. With heating/air conditioning geothermal, there’s also little air venting for a quieter space.


Silence was a big goal for Johannes Goebel, the director of EMPAC.

“I wanted a totally quiet hall with no air noise,” he said. “And I wanted a diffused sound where any musician could be anywhere in the hall and be heard. I also wanted the sound to be localized. It should be transparent so one could speak without amplification.”

Grimshaw Architects and acoustician Larry Kirkegaard of Kirkegaard Associates built a 1,200-seat space with walls that are about a foot thick of either maple with wenge (an exotic black African hardwood) in panels of horizontal lines or precast stone. All the walls have elliptical modulated shapes in irregular patterns to better reflect and scatter the sound and are slanted at a convex angle, which Goebel said was “a major shift for the acoustician.”

What’s especially unique about the hall is its ceiling, which is of Nomex, a fire retardant fabric. It is not used in any other U.S. concert hall, he said. Bass frequencies pass through this material, evolve for 10 feet before reflecting back from a ceiling almost three stories high at the stage level.

Frequent discussions determined the use of unperforated leather for the seat covers and no carpeting on the floor, which both reflect sound more; putting small round air vents under each seat, which displaces ventilation; designing the balcony overhang to cover no more than three rows of the orchestra and being sure the audience could see the feet of the performer (something also at Zankel). Huge black banners can adjust for reverb. Another illusion is that from the back of the hall the space looks huge, yet from the stage it seems intimate.

What Goebel is most proud of is that the hall has exceptional clarity.

“An orchestra can envelope the audience but I can focus on an individual instrument and be able to hear it,” he said.

And standing on stage, one could hear the soft footfalls of a small tour group who had entered the balcony on a tour.

“You can’t hear that in most halls,” Goebel said.


On a more intimate level, Saratoga Associates designed the 400-seat Picotte Recital Hall at Massry with acoustician Seth Waltz of AVL Designs. Walls are warm brown tones of Brazilian cherry veneer over plywood in a wave-like formation, a design AVL used for the first time in a recital hall. The same wave-like shapes in multiple layers of gypsum are used for the ceiling’s clouds, which are twelve feet below the 34-foot ceiling. Slatted panels in the same veneer border the stage to help bring “upper side energy back to the stage,” Waltz said.

Although the hall is specifically designed as a concert venue, care was given to put a double floor into construction, which allows for practice rooms on the second floor to have the same acoustics as the hall. The hall’s doors are also five inches thick, which isolates the hall from any lobby noise.

Troy Music Hall

In 1875, many of the preceding concerns were not considered, which is maybe one reason why audiences of the time weren’t especially impressed with the Troy Music Hall. That changed with the installation of an Odell concert pipe organ in 1890 and the “cove,” which is a concave wood addition near the top of the back wall of the stage below the ornamental pipes. Together, they allow the sound to be projected out into the audience. These additions along with the back walls’ decorative foam panels, the hall’s thick plaster and filigreed walls and the 65-foot plaster ceiling, help make the hall’s acoustics famous. 

“What’s amazing is how many artists, even non-classical artists, come here for the first time and they notice the difference with other halls,” said Jon Elbaum, the hall’s executive director. “They’ll even go off mic. They don’t get the chance to play that way and it changes how they approach their music.”

Expert opinions

Three local musicians offered up their favorite halls, which include some area churches.

— David Alan Miller: “We tailor what we play to the venue, because we don’t want to have sonic overload in an intimate space. For the Palace Theatre we need a very large orchestra because it needs a lot of sound to fill. It’s very exciting. We love the balcony. It’s a lush sound.”

“Troy is one of the great halls of the world. It’s a one-of-a-kind space. Any ensemble sounds great there. When the orchestra plays loudly, there’s so much wood there it feels like we’re in the inside of a cello. You can feel the reverberation. It’s a great immediacy.”

“EMPAC is a great, great hall. More modern sounding. Very live and exciting. The players love to play there. It’s a gorgeous open space that lends itself physically and visually to so many possibilities and why we do the American Music Festival there.”

“When Zankel opened and I saw the glass wall, I was concerned the sound would have a lack of warmth. But we love being in the Zankel space. It’s a gorgeous sound, and only limited by the size. It’s why we use chamber groups.”

— Brett Wery, saxophonist, conductor: “Troy is a real joy, gratifying to play in. The only thing uncomfortable is that the stage is raked. If you lose your clarinet cap it rolls into the string section. But the sound is great in the audience.” (There’s a five-inch difference in angle between the back and the front of the stage.)

“For large groups, the Palace Theatre is comfortable to play and project in. But it’s a cavernous space. Hard for smaller groups.”

“Zankel is great for intimate chamber music. It’s too live for bands. Massry is good for small groups and Proctors feels like the Palace … comfortable.”

— Curtis Funk, conductor of Octavo Singers: “Union’s Memorial Chapel with its shoebox architecture and minimal absorption materials makes for a nice, lively hall. Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Albany has great hang time of four seconds (reverb length). St. Luke’s Catholic in Schenectady is nice and brilliant, but First Reformed of Scotia’s set up makes for a real intimate experience with the audience.” 

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