Renovation to address acoustic woes

If approved, the Gaillard Auditorium will undergo renovations to modernize the downtown performance space.

As Spoleto Festival USA audiences celebrate the return of the Dock Street Theatre, artists and production staff are left grumbling about the challenges at another Spoleto venue, Gaillard Municipal Auditorium.

There is a section in the orchestra under the overhang of the balcony where the festival does not sell seats because of the poor sound quality, Spoleto Production Manager Rhys Williams said.

"That experience is not something we want our guests to have," Williams said.

Sound quality is one of the key issues that designers hope to address during the renovation and expansion of the 2,730 seat auditorium. Preliminary plans for the Gaillard call for $96 million of the $142 million project budget to be allocated to the renovation of the performance space.

The city expects private donations to cover half the cost, and the remaining $71 million would come from existing city revenue sources and new borrowing that would not impact taxes. The public financing is yet to be approved.

The auditorium would be all but rebuilt from scratch according to Barbara Vaughn, media relations director for the city of Charleston. Like a house stripped down to its studs, the space will be rebuilt with a brand new seating arrangement that includes tiers of box seats. The number of seats in the house will be reduced to about 1,800, making the auditorium less cavernous and more intimate.

Aubrey Foard, a Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra member, said the sheer size of the hall is one of the problems. Foard is a tuba player who has played in the orchestra for the past four years and has experienced the Gaillard from the perspective of a performer and as an audience member.

"What strikes me most when I'm listening," Foard said, "is how much trouble the sound has getting offstage."

Foard is hardly alone in that assessment, and the problem has been noted for some time. A 1998 review of a Spoleto opera, "Jenufa," by a New York Times critic found that the Gaillard "swallowed orchestral sound." A 1984 review of another Spoleto opera, "The Merry Widow," by The Washington Post found singers on stage had to "adjust their voices to the acoustics" of the large auditorium.

Onstage, Foard has noticed that the hard, non-absorbent surfaces of the auditorium creates what he calls a splashy sound. Since the sound from a tuba travels upward, the ceiling can potentially bounce sound right back down on him.

"When you're pointing at an area of this really hard surface you get a sort of slap-back -- the sound comes back and slaps you," Foard said.

Foard said this type of interference can make it harder to hear across the

orchestra. David Stahl, conductor of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, agrees.

"When you're a musician on the stage you have a very hard time hearing your colleagues," Stahl said.

Stahl believes the Gaillard opened at an important time for the city, and that founder Gian Carlo Menotti would never have chosen Charleston for the Spoleto Festival USA without it, but that the hall also presents "countless problems" with the acoustics.

"In great concert halls, the hall is an instrument itself," Stahl said. "Our orchestra and our community deserve a better place for our performers."

Despite the flaws performers might hear, recording in the space isn't too difficult. Freelance recording engineer Leonard Gibbs has been recording classical concerts at the Gaillard since 1970, capturing music from microphones that hang directly above the first row of seats.

"From a recording point of view the sound is fine," Gibbs said. "The walls are actually correct for what I do."

Despite that, he does find the hall oversized, at least for symphonic music, but notes that the venue debuted in 1968 as a general purpose auditorium that could host large audiences for a wide variety of performance types.

Gibbs points to the same seats in the orchestra section beneath the balcony that Williams maligned as the worst for orchestral concerts.

"The protruding balcony structure above blocks all of the sound," Gibbs said.

After work is complete, the "new" Gaillard should offer better acoustics to every seat in the audience, as well as performers on stage.

Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto Festival USA, is encouraged by the successful acoustic improvements at the Dock Street Theatre, and has high hopes for the renovated Galliard.

"The Dock has raised the bar for the Galliard, no doubt," Redden said.

The projected timetable calls for construction to begin in August 2012 and the renovation and expansion to be finished in September 2014. The public can view renderings and a model of the proposed project on display at the Charleston Civic Design Center at 85 Calhoun St. from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Charleston City Council is scheduled to see plans for the renovation at Tuesday's meeting.

John Leimbach is a Goldring Arts Journalism Program writer. Reach him at jrleimba@syr.edu.