Is the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ new subterranean hall a good place to hear music?
No definitive answer is possible, because it is in a way not a single hall, but many. The sound of most concert halls hinges on the size and shape of the room, the ceiling height, the ratio of absorbent materials to sound-reflective ones — in other words, fixed conditions.
PAFA’s new 270-seat venue, however, uses an elaborate Yamaha electronic sound-control system of microphones and speakers, and the way it sounds aims, by design, to change all the time.
You might have sensed at this season’s three initial Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recitals in the hall that the sound was coming from stage. And much of it was. But a sea of speakers overhead was also in use, contributing both volume and the perception of space and reverberation. To hear a concert there is an auditory illusion, another digital incursion eating away at a once-analog world.
Over time, performers and PAFA’s sound engineers will learn more about the system and optimal settings for, say, a string quartet as opposed to a solo pianist or chamber ensemble. But based on first outings this season, there’s work to be done.
Concert experiences so far have projected a too-dry acoustic. And no amount of tweaking of the system can erase periodic rumblings from the Broad Street subway a few feet east of the hall.
And yet, this hall is worth getting right. Recent development on North Broad Street is pushing the gravitational center of the city north for the first time in perhaps seven decades, and PAFA is no less a major player in this changing dynamic than the newly reopened Metropolitan Opera house up the street.
Long ago, talk of building a baseball stadium along the northern edge of Center City drove hopes that foot traffic would bring activity to a sparsely populated stretch of post-industrial urban fabric. But a ballpark would have operated on limited hours, as ballparks do, and the more organic development now cropping up on and around North Broad promises change of a more enduring kind.
Before one recent PAFA concert, I stopped into a new Starbucks across the street and had to abandon my place in line for the corps of bun-crowned Pennsylvania Ballet students ahead of me. This on an ordinarily sleepy Sunday afternoon. You couldn’t say there was much activity on Lenfest Plaza in the shadow of Claes Oldenburg’s cartoonish paintbrush, but there was some.
PAFA plans a wide variety of uses for the new hall, and if the museum-school can entice concertgoers to spend time with its art before or after — something I didn’t see happening much on my three recent visits — then the people-to-tumbleweed equation could begin to really shift.
The sound of the new venue, I suspect, serves the spoken word well, and for film and lectures, this hall — part of the new John and Richanda Rhoden Arts Center, which includes a gallery — seems like a much-needed gathering space for students and the public.
I do wish a more innovative setting for John Rhoden’s cool figurative sculptures could have been found. Placed behind glass in vitrines recessed into the walls of the hall’s interior, they are easy to overlook.
As for the music: classical musicians heavily favor natural acoustics over electronic enhancement, and because the best acoustical settings haven’t yet been found, the jury is still out. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society has at least three more concerts planned for the space next season, and part of the success could well lie in classical performers’ putting more trust in more electronic enhancement than has been the case. The ceiling, after all, isn’t going to be getting any higher.
The hall was quite dry in February, when the Marinus Ensemble appeared in various instrumental combinations. In Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57, the piano grew harsh in the upper register at the upper levels of dynamics, as I wrote at the time, and in Turina the sound was clear but not warm.
The reverberation factor was higher when soprano Erin Morley and pianist Ken Noda visited in March. Morley was covered by the piano's sound in a Poulenc song, but for the most part balance was good and the sound clear.
For Brahms on the first Sunday in April, though, any resonance was gone. Because of another commitment, I was able to stay for only the first half of the program by violinist Korbinian Altenberger and pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn. But in one Brahms sonata and the Scherzo in A Minor, “Sonatensatz," from the F-A-E Sonata, the sound was back to square one — bone dry. Rather than supporting Altenberger’s sound, the room made it more exposed and brittle. Both instruments sounded antiseptic.
Since those concerts, I’ve learned from PAFA staff that the Morley concert employed a 1.3-second reverberation time with electronic enhancement from both the stage and audience speakers, and the Brahms concert used a 1.1-second reverb time and electronic enhancement just in the audience area.
These may seem like tiny differences, but from where I sat (which was in the same seat for all three concerts) the changes in impact and presence were significant.
The fixed aspects of the room are worth experimenting with to the extent possible. Replacing any sound-absorbent materials (the carpeting in the aisles comes to mind) might increase reverberation slightly, narrowing the range of required electronic enhancement. It’s clear that if PAFA wants this hall to be a serious concert venue for classical music (jazz, pop, and other genres are more accustomed to electronic enhancement), it is going to have to do better.
Adjustable halls are a sexy idea. They carry the whiff of innovation. But locally, anyway, they risk promising more than they deliver. When fund-raisers were stumping for Verizon Hall, they loved to talk about the push-button convenience of an acoustical disc above the stage and other equipment that could be changed not only from night to night, but even to achieve acoustical perfection from piece to piece on the same program.
That didn’t happen. Yes, for some acts acoustical curtains are pulled out and speakers used. But for orchestral concerts, the setting on the height of the acoustical disc has been the same since 2012, according to a Kimmel spokesperson, and door openings to the acoustical chamber around the hall remain basically the same.
The Kimmel’s 600-or-so-seat Perelman, which is not adjustable and which uses no electronic enhancement for chamber music, is a great hall. When pianist Richard Goode played a PCMS recital there at the end of April, the hall carried his beautifully rounded sound with flattering fidelity. It captured his delicacy in Haydn as well as the power of the loudest Beethoven and Chopin with absolutely no distortions.
The Perelman, though, is both larger than presenters like PCMS sometimes need and quite expensive to rent. PAFA’s new setting fills a nice niche in the city — more intimate than the Perelman, more attractive than Benjamin Franklin Hall at the American Philosophical Society, and with better sight lines than the current setup at the increasingly busy College of Physicians.
Adjustable concert halls are a lot like public fountains. In plans and renderings, they promise to bring a kind of kinetic energy to a space. But they also require constant attention. Water leaks, and fountains are expensive to maintain. Sound, if it exists in an adjustable vessel, is no less malleable.