Love at first sound 

Emory's Wind Ensemble plays, but Schwartz Center stars

SCHWARTZ CENTER/EMORY, DEC. 5 --Metro Atlanta is growing by 100,000 people per year, and musicians continue to voice complaint that viable and available concert venues are too few. So another new concert hall which is not too big, nor too small, and is carefully attuned to acoustic music, is greatly welcomed in this city with both enthusiasm and relief.

The 825-seat Emerson Concert Hall of Emory University's new Schwartz Center for Performing Arts fits the bill, as demonstrated in a sneak preview of its sonic acumen last Thursday -- a concert presented by the Emory Wind Ensemble under the direction of Scott Stewart. The audience, mostly fellow students and parents, got to examine in a first-time public demonstration what the rest of Atlanta will only anticipate prior to official festivities that begin Feb. 1.

Acoustical consultants from Kirkegaard Associates were also on hand for the concert. They were busy with acoustical measurements, sweeping the hall with a test tone that loudly whooshed upward across the audio spectrum, generated by equipment placed onstage -- including a device that looked like a soccer ball made out of speakers. The audience was invited to be a tacit part of the fun, so that measurements could be made with real sound-absorbing people in the seats.

From the 1960s to the '80s, many architects viewed acoustics as something akin to witchcraft or a wild guess, and so it was often an issue badly handled or ignored in design of new buildings. And in the civic planning of the day, common wisdom was, "We want to have a 4,000-seat event space in our city and want it to do everything. We don't want to build two." The result was halls that were major acoustical blunders.

One of these was San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall, with over 3,000 seats, completed in 1980. It was so bad that only 12 years later the inside was completely altered, reducing the seating capacity but vastly improving the acoustics. Kirkegaard was involved in the Davies renovation, converting one of America's worst concert halls into one if its best.

Today, it's recognized that a community is better served by multiple venues of various sizes. Emerson's capacity was determined by assessing the needs of the university, the community and the existing halls in the area. Emory's Performing Arts Studio and Cannon Chapel are both smaller, and its Glenn Memorial Hall is sufficiently bigger.

Still, a hall of Emerson's size can offer acoustical challenges, like the architect's desire to include windows near the ceiling to allow entry of natural light into the hall. But windows are often an easy pathway for invasion of noise. The solution: deep window assemblies with a special gas sealed between the layers of glass.

Inside the hall, reverberation time can be altered by movable curtains. Many were unfurled to make the hall less reverberant. The resulting sound was warm but clear, as heard from center of the hall. The surprise was listening from upstairs, where box seats would normally be: a presence and brilliance as if one were actually on the stage.

The Emory Wind Ensemble's performance featured music for symphonic band, for orchestral winds and for a chamber group of about a dozen players. Most engaging was Eric Whitacre's "The Noisy Wheels of Joy," written last year, that opened the program. It is a joyful work, indeed, cavorting about like an overture to a comic opera, or perhaps a likely candidate for action sequences of an Indiana Jones movie.

The weakest performance was Joaquin Rodrigo's "Adagio para Orquestra de instrumentos de Viento," which had problems with ragged entrances of delicate chords in the opening and closing sections. But if for the rest of the music there were occasional squeaks from the reeds, burps from the brass or an occasional transgression of tuning, Stewart and the Emory students served up a performance that was genuine, heart-felt and warmly musical on an otherwise chilly evening.



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