Friday, August 28, 2009

Sound check

With the Carpenter Theatre, the main venue of the Richmond CenterStage performing-arts complex, set to open in two weeks, the project’s acoustical consultants and a revolving cast of local musicians have spent this week conducting sound checks in the renovated theater. I sat in on two of these sessions, as members of the Richmond Symphony, the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra, the Richmond Philharmonic and the Richmond Symphony Chorus performed excerpts of Beethoven’s First Symphony and Handel’s "Messiah."

The sound was, to my ears, more brightly resonant, more transparent in musical texture and more consistent from one seating area to another than the sound heard in this hall prior to its acoustical upgrading.

Important qualifiers: I was listening in a nearly empty auditorium, without the sound-cushioning effect of bodies filling seats; the orchestral forces were minimal (just three violinists showed up for the run-through of the Beethoven); and, in any event, these test pieces are not thickly textured music.

Several wind players remarked that the sound onstage was "hot," or quite loud, although Rolla Durham, the symphony’s principal trumpeter, said he heard more warmth than in the past. In both the Beethoven and Handel, most of the instrumentalists were playing on the section of the stage that thrusts into the auditorium. (This section is lowered for theatrical productions to form the orchestra pit.) The back line of winds played directly under the proscenium arch. The chorus sang behind the proscenium, within a new orchestra shell that is narrower and deeper than the old shell.

A set of "clouds" – acoustical panels suspended overhead, at roughly the same level as the top of the proscenium – reflect sound back to the stage and outward into the auditorium. Other sound reflectors are built into the walls of the theater, notably in the formerly dead-sounding space under the balcony. The floor under orchestra-level seats has been adjusted to reduce the height difference between the stage and seats in the front rows and to create more space (or at least the sensation of more space) between the overhanging balcony and the seats underneath.

The acousticians have installed an extensive amplification system. Some of it is to be used only for amplified pop-music events, but other components can be employed to enhance and regularize volume of unamplified music as it reaches more distant seats in the upper balconies.

I was moving around the hall, not looking over the technicians’ shoulders, during these sound checks, so I can’t say which components were turned on or off at which times. I can say that whatever sound enhancement was in use wasn’t obvious and didn’t sound artificial.

Some of the sonic difference can be traced to visual perception: The stage floor, which was painted black, is now blond wood, and the stage lighting is brighter. The walls are freshly painted, and 20 years’ worth of dust and grime have been cleaned away. "You’d be amazed how much the absence of dirt affects sound," observed Mark Holden of JaffeHolden, the project’s acoustical consultant.

Physical comfort plays a role, too – more leg room in balcony seats and more aisle space reduce the claustrophobic sensation that affected the listening experience in much of the old hall.

The bright sound that came off the stage in these sound checks at times bordered on the chilly or brittle, especially when the winds played loudly or the chorus sang at full volume. Holden didn’t seem too worried by that. "If things sound ideal in an empty hall, I would be worried," he said. (During these sessions, he was especially attentive to the sound of cellos and double-basses.)

The acousticians will continue to check their systems during performances for much of the theater’s opening season. The true sound of the space probably won’t be known until midwinter, when patrons turn up with sound-deadening overcoats.