As the Spoleto Festival wraps up this week, organizers (and many others) already are looking ahead to 2015 when the Gaillard Performance Hall is scheduled to open after a three-year, $142 million renovation and upgrade project.
One of the most important improvements will be the quality of sound in the new hall. As the building nears completion Paul Scarbrough, principal sound engineer for the Connecticut firm akustiks will "tune the building" - test and tweak its acoustics before patrons fill the hall's 1,800 seats.
Scarbrough and his team have been involved in the design and construction of the hall since the beginning of the project and have worked on similar spaces, including McAfee Concert Hall at Belmont University and Schermerhorn Symphony Hall, both in Nashville.
Recently, Scarbrough discussed his beginnings in sound, akustik's work on the Gaillard and more..
Q: When did you first get addicted to sound?
A: I've always been interested in music. My parents exposed us to a broad range of musical styles growing up. Everything from the Philadelphia Orchestra, to Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and Broadway show tunes. When I went to school for architecture and took some music theory courses, I ended up marrying a love for architecture and music and that's really how it happened.
Q: Is each new hall or theater different to work on?
Designing the acoustics, yes, definitely the mix of uses always makes things different. Whether it's for an opera company or for an orchestra. And the architecture is always different any place you go: no two are the same. Though there are similar acoustics that we encounter, there are fine nuances that correspond to the needs of the community and to art form for the space.
Q: When does the process of acoustics begin, after the construction is complete?
A: It's actually important that we be involved from the very beginning of the project, before the designs are even started by the architect. We work with the architect, the owner and the theater consultants and ask what are the key priorities. Then we'll define a series of criteria such as the width of the hall, the height of the ceiling. Then we work back and forth (acoustics, theater planning, and architecture) until it evolves into a design.
It's a collaborative and intricate process among those three design professionals. Once the building is substantially complete, we'll do a series of tests so that it meets the criteria. Then we'll do a series of rehearsals with groups like the Charleston Symphony Orchestra to see how the building is performing and for them to get used to the space for the first time. Any concert hall or theater is an instrument in its own right. We're helping the orchestra to play that new instrument.
Q: Is it more difficult to design for a multi-performance space like the Gaillard?
A: It is harder. You have to design the acoustics to adapt for different performance types. We have a portable orchestra shelf for any symphony to create the right ascending chamber to fill the room. But that goes away and lifts descend into the pit to facilitate opera and ballet. One of the things that differentiate the Gaillard from other multi-purpose halls because of Spoleto is the orchestra pit has been designed to accommodate over 100 musicians in order to present grand operas on par with some of the great opera houses in Europe. And then finally for the amplified side, like Broadway musicals or entertainers, there are several acoustical drapery systems to damp down the acoustics to create a crisper sound for more amplified music.
Q: Do you feel any pressure having such a huge responsibility on the success of a performance space?
A: We always feel a lot of pressure to create the best acoustic environment that we can to create the best acoustic environment we're working in. A key part of the experience of the audience and the performer is the acoustic quality of the space. We feel a lot of pressure so that communication happens in an intense way so that first timers have an "Oh wow" experience.
Q: What are some of the favorite spaces and sounds that you've worked on or have encountered?
A: There are a lot of spaces that I really enjoy to go watch or hear performances. I like the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall we designed in Nashville. There's a wonderful sound quality in that room. I do a fair amount of listening in Carnegie Hall in New York City. And in Europe, probably my favorite spaces are the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Wiener Musikverein in Vienna.
Nick Reichert is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.
Akustiks principal Christopher Blair conducts one of the tuning rehearsals with the Nashville Symphony in Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which opened in 2006. The sphere on a stand is a dodecahedron, a special loudspeaker used for sophisticated acoustical measurements. In the foreground on the right is a laptop running the analysis software for acoustical testing.×