The Sound and the Fury

O Fortuna! Kodak’s ten million dollar gift earmarked for renovations to Eastman Theatre have sparked two debates. The first has to do with the future renaming of the space “Kodak Hall.” The second centers on whether renovations, scheduled for this summer and next, will actually improve the sound of music.

The morning after the Rochester Philharmonic and Oratorio Society performed Carmina Burana, two rather technical e-mails on the subject landed in my box. They are reprinted below the line.



• Something is wrong with acoustics of the Eastman Theatre, and the 2008 alterations will not fix things. First, a recap:

• The acoustical changes imposed upon the Eastman Theatre in 1972, while highly touted and strongly embraced at the time, failed to honor, examine, and build upon five decades of general satisfaction with the sound of the hall. The 1972 changes destroyed the original octave-to-octave balance by inserting a bright, dry ‘presence peak’ into the response curve. It took about three decades for this result to become officially recognized as unsatisfactory.

• Upon such official recognition, further acoustical changes were imposed on the Eastman Theatre in 2004. These changes similarly failed to reach back to the roots of the Theatre. Instead, an overlaid contemporary concept of enhanced musical sound was applied, intended to excite audiences jaded by exposure to this present noisy world. The audible result, unchanged as of this writing, varies from a superficially impressive vast sonic muddle (in Orchestra Center) to a thin, piercingly bright, exploded sound with little sense of homogeneous ensemble (in the Balcony).

• More or less by accident in 2004, a strong ‘slapback’ echo was brought to the fore. It is deleterious to listening from Orchestra seating

• The 2008 architectural changes in the house will inevitably alter the sound, but they will not vastly improve it. Because the 2008 alterations will affect only a small percentage of the total volume of the house and the aggregate reflections therein, they alone will not fully address the Eastman Theatre’s acoustical problems.

• I am calling for a brief period of broad-based discovery, to include RPO and Eastman musicians (apparently for the first time) in the role of listeners, and to possibly include a second opinion from an interested and well-published Ph.D. physicist and acoustician who knows and lauds Chris Blair of Akustiks, that party to be named and invited when appropriate. [See my correspondence with this third-party acoustician, linked at the end of Stirring the Soup.]

• Selected photographic thumbnail comparisons with other halls are provided, including shoebox, modified shoebox, and fan-shaped halls, pointing out what works elsewhere, compared with what currently does not work at the Eastman Theatre.

• A plea is made toward thinking-outside-the-box, or at least off-the-stage, by experimenting with a shell-less ‘thrust stage,’ extending up to thirty feet forward of the present stage (depending upon sightlines). Audience members might occupy the present stage, and the shell might or might not be left in place. At the problematic Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, a thrust stage has been very well received, bringing to the audience more immediacy of sound, as well as a warmer sound. Avery Fisher is a hall with some of the same inherent acoustical problems as the Eastman Theatre, most particularly poor early reflections within a massive volume of air.

• A highly placed U of R official wrote recently, “What the actual ultimate effects will be of the impending renovations on the acoustical sound will not be known until [after they are completed and] we do some thorough sound checks.” “…in spite of the reams of acoustical analysis, and although it’s 2008, acoustical precision on renovations is still a very fuzzy process. If it weren’t, Avery Fisher Hall would never have had to be re-done as many times as it has.” Now does that inspire confidence, or what? Since it is apparently not known precisely how to go about it, do we at least hold consensus about what we seek? Or are we just hoping for some barely defined ‘nice sound’ to surprise us serendipitously?

• Fortunately, the unpredictable and less than salubrious acoustical effects of the planned physical alterations inside the house will pale in comparison with the positive acoustical effects of a thrust, shell-less stage, or of drastically altered shell angles (third choice), or of some combination of the two (second choice). The reasons this is so are discussed in pellucid detail in the text and photographs that follow.

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Bob Laird
Sodus NY

Dear Bob,

Wow, what a labor of thought and research you’ve done. It will take me a while to absorb it. For now just a note after attending last night’s very fine Carmina Burana performance. I sat in the upper balcony (left side) for the first time in many years. The sound was at times excruciatingly loud and bright. The violins were so piercing I had to cover my ears. That’s something I never expected to have to do in that hall with unamplified sound. While some of the orchestra was easy to hear (brass, basses), I found it hard to sort out many of the blended woodwind parts and cello/viola lines. Mostly it was just punishing when loud and muddled when not loud. Another patron agreed. The chorus came through well, however, with the help of amplification.

I didn’t much care for the old Theatre sound. But I like this less, especially upstairs, where the better sound used to be found. While the renovation process may work out some of these problems, or may be too advanced for a major re-thinking, your criticisms are valid regarding the audience’s experience. It would be a shame if the best investment the orchestra has received in many years was to end up being such a mixed blessing.



Kodak Theatre/Carmina

Kodak Theatre? I'm sentimental but Mr. Eastman was an astute entrepreneur and, may he rest in peace, I'm sure he would not object to (1.) proper upkeep and updating of his theatre, and (2.) not looking a gift horse in the mouth, i.e. the proper deference and thanks to Kodak for a most gracious gift. Look at what the Kodak Theatre in LA is- one amazing place.

Carmina? I missed it and only heard stunning reviews afterwards. I'm really sorry to have missed it. Good luck with China.

Sue Wemett, Eastman-Rochester Chorus

Hi, Sue

Nice to hear from you! I agree. The more I think about it, the more palatable "Kodak Hall."

Carmina was pretty decent. Our conductor was pleased, and he's not one to toss around beige compliments. I can hardly wait to hear the recording. It'll air on Classical 91.5 and FM 90.3 on Monday, September 1st at 8:00 p.m.

I'll be blogging from China, I hope. I look forward to hearing Eastman-Rochester Chorus sing Haydn's Creation next season. It's one of my favs!