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CONCERT HALLS AROUND THE WORLD
Story and photos by
Brad Hathaway
High on Adventure, March 2020

Auditorio-de-TeneriffeFabulous concert halls can be found around the World. Photo (c)Auditorio de Tenerife/Efraín Pinto

Travelers who share a love of classical orchestral music know that some cities have concert halls that call to them. If you are going to Vienna, the Musikverein is a no-brainer. In Berlin you would be making a beeline to the Konzerthaus. My time in Amsterdam allowed for my enjoyment of the Grieg Piano Concerto in the Concertgebouw.

But what of the lesser known or newer additions to the world’s store of fabulous music houses? My travels have let me thrill to “my kind of music” in some fabulous settings.

Take the Auditorio de Tenerife on the Spanish Canary Island of Tenerife, the photo of which is at the top of this page. Who would have expected the sight of one of the most dramatic and inspiring concert halls to greet visitors on a cruise ship pulling into this port some 200 miles off the Atlantic coast of Morocco?

Frequently surprising architect Santiago Calatrava, who gave us the sparkling white edifices of the New York’s Oculus rail terminal and the blowing-in-the-wind wings of the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed the crescent sail that dominates the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife as surely as the Sydney Opera House identifies the capital of Australia’s New South Wales.

  Disney Concert Hall   Disney Concert Hall interior  
 
Frank Gehry’s stainless steel design in Los Angeles
Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
The sonically superb interior of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

 

Calatrava is not the only modern architect to create striking buildings for concert houses. Frank Gehry gave us a shiny stainless steel structure for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their director Gustavo Dudamel. While I have significant reservations about his design for the exterior of the hall, the interior, which was the acoustic work of Minoru Nagata and his protege Yasuhisa Toyota, provides the finest sound quality I’ve experienced in a vineyard-style setting, where the seating surrounds the stage. If there ever was an “ear opening experience” for sound it was the evening I heard my first concert in that hall.

Prague’s Rudolfinum Concert Hall
Prague’s Rudolfinum has a more traditional exterior.

International travel gives you the opportunity to hear great music in great halls on every continent and in every hemisphere. In Europe most cities offer either fabulous time-honored halls, mostly of the shoebox or traditional horizontal seating layout that was the standard throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In Prague the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra holds forth in the venerable Dvořák Hall of the lovely Rudolfinum on the banks of the River Vltava. Sonically the space is vibrant, but there is also the sense of history that enriches a visit to so many classic halls in Europe. Here, for instance, I heard Beethoven and Rachmaninov performed in the same space where Antonin Dvořák conducted the Czech Philharmonic’s first concert in 1896.

Shostakovich Hall_ St Petersburg
The fully opulent interior of the Shostakovich Hall in Saint Petersburg

Photo courtesy Saint-Petersburg Philharmonia

The sense of history, while strong in Prague, was nearly overwhelming in St. Petersburg the night I attended a concert in the Grand Hall of the Philharmonia. The space, which dates from 1838, is often referred to as Shostakovich Hall. With seating for about 1,500 in a classic shoebox layout with a very high ceiling yielding a spacious sound, the hall has been host to any number of famous performers, conductors and composers.

But the history that reverberated most for me as I sat there under the crystal chandeliers in that handsome room was the thought of the night of August 9, 1942, when it must have looked much less opulent.

That was when, in the sixteenth week of the Nazi Siege of the city, the Leningrad Radio Orchestra summoned every ounce of energy it could muster to perform the symphony that Dmitri Shostakovich had composed under the German guns. Starvation and disease filled the city. Three players died during rehearsals. But the populace rallied to their cause and the concert was broadcast via radio and loudspeakers in a demonstration of civic determination which was to last throughout the two years, four months, two weeks and five days of the siege.

  Barcelona’s Palace of Catalan Music   Barcelona’s Palace of Catalan Music interior  
 
The exterior of Barcelona’s Palace of Catalan Music hints at the beauty inside

The interior doesn’t disappoint

 

 

Somewhat less overwhelming from the standpoint of history, but still thrilling both musically and architecturally, concert halls across Europe call to me. In the South, I’m partial to the distinctive Catalan Modernista style beauty of Barcelona’s Palau de la Música Catalana with its walls and roof open to the light of day through Art Nouveau stained glass windows and skylight. To attend an evening concert here is to have the natural light of day slowly fade as the music takes over the space.

  The brutalist exterior of London’s Barbican Concert Hall   London Barbican Hall interior  
 
The brutalist exterior of London’s Barbican

The warmer interior of London’s Barbican
Photo by Mark Allen courtesy Barbican Center
 

Across the channel from Europe proper, London offers many fine halls. Among them is the concert hall of the Barbican Centre complex where the 1,942-seat Barbican Hall is home to both the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The attractive, warm wood-paneled hall sits inside a shell of brutalist architectural style - simple box-like structure - and the acoustics seem to reflect the harsh style of the exterior. But the London Symphony Orchestra has learned how to use that sound to its advantage, and I thoroughly enjoyed both Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky scores in that hexagonal space.

  Finland’s distinctive Musiikkitalo   Finland’s distinctive Musiikkitalo interior  
 
Finland’s distinctive Musiikkitalo.
Photo by Amo Chapelle
Inside the Musiikkitalo is a vineyard-style hall.
Photo by Heikki Tuuli
 

Northern Europe has many halls that have called to me, some quite new.

In Helsinki, Finland, the Musiikkitalo is one of the latest examples of the magic that acousticians such as Yasuhisa Toyota have been able to accomplish with the latest in computer assisted design. The building, across the street from the Parliament of Finland, was built partially underground in order to have its roofline match the neighboring event venue Finlandia Hall and the contemporary art museum Kiasma. A 1,700-seat hall in the modern vineyard style in which audience sections at various heights surround the orchestra space, provides an all-encompassing sonic feeling.

  Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen Concert Hall exterior   Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen Concert Hall interior  
 
Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen is built into the side of a hill
Stockholm’s Berwaldhallen being set up for Dudamel’s concert
 

In Stockholm, right next to the American Embassy, the Swedes also have a hall that is partially underground, although here it is dug back into a hill of solid rock rather than down into the ground. The Berwaldhallen (named for a seldom heard nineteenth century Swedish composer) places its 1,300 seats in a hexagon-shaped space. During our visit we were fortunate to find the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra visiting with its former principal conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. The Sibelius symphony he conducted that evening filled the hall which is sometimes called “the mine” because of its construction in the rock hillside.

  Copenhagen Danish Radio Concert Hall interior   Copenhagen Danish Radio Concert Hall lobby  costumes  
 

A moon is projected on a hanging chandelier for a space-themed concert

Costumed characters greet patrons in the lobby before the space-themed concert
 

In Copenhagen, French architect Jean Nouvel’s design for the new (2009) Danish Radio Concert Hall utilizes the vineyard style as well. In this case, there are about 1,800 seats. The night we attended, the Danish Radio SymfoniOrkestret was presenting an evening of space-themed music. The hall wonderfully accommodated the bombastic themes from Star Wars, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, and, of course, the fanfare from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra which famously opened 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music was superbly played and it was a fun event. There were even storm troopers and Darth Vaders in the lobby!

Singapore Esplanade Concert Hall Durian exterior
The spiked roof Singapore’s “Durian
"

On the other side of the world, there are halls to sample in many major cities as well. Take the “Durian.” That is the local’s affectionate term for the more formally titled Esplanade Concert Hall in Singapore. The name Durian comes from the multi-spiked roofline which reminds Singaporeans of the spiky tropical fruit sold in their markets. The concert hall itself is part of a greater complex of theaters including this 1,600-seat shoebox-shaped hall. This is the last hall that acoustic genius Artec Consultants’ Russel Johnson designed where the sound is sparkling and clear. It is said to be one of only five halls in the world that share the use of reverberation chambers in the walls with an adjustable acoustic canopy overhead. I had the pleasure of hearing Yu Long conduct the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in a moving performance of one of my favorite Shostakovich symphonies (number five), and found it every bit as exciting as I had hoped.

  Tokyo’s Suntory Hall   Tokyo’s Suntory Hall organ  
 
Flags festoon the exterior of Tokyo’s Suntory Hall

The 5,898 pipes of the organ
loom over the stage
 

Of course, there are times when you find yourself in a city with one of the great halls, but there isn’t a concert scheduled. So you try other halls. In Tokyo, the Opera City Concert Hall was dark while we were there, so we checked out Suntory Hall. This 2,000-seat modern hall, designed in a modified vineyard style, was built in the 1980s with acoustic work by Minoru Nagata. It has a pipe organ with 5,898 pipes which was put to use on the night we attended for some Bach and Beethoven. The Toccata and Fugue in D minor literally shook the hall. Then we listened as Naoto Otomo led the New Japan Philharmonic in a merely competent performance of Beethoven’s 9th in a merely serviceable space. But, hey, it was Beethoven!

If you happen to live in the United States as I do, I don’t want to leave you with the impression you have to leave your country to find great concert halls. In fact, from coast to coast you can find halls that often appear in lists of the world’s greatest. From Boston on the Atlantic with its 2,625 seat Symphony Hall that opened in 1900, to the Pacific with the 2,265 seat Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles that opened one hundred and three years later, there are halls to thrill.

San Francisco’s Louise M Davies Symphony Hall
San Francisco’s Louise M Davies Symphony Hall

California is fortunate to have another fine venue for a superb orchestra. The Louise Davies Symphony Hall, some 350 miles to the North, hosts the San Francisco Symphony where Michael Tilson Thomas is about to yield the music director’s baton to Esa-Pekka Salonen who, coincidentally, was the music director in Los Angeles when Gehry, Nagata and Toyota were creating the glory of the Walt Disney interior. For me, the experience of a Mahler symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco is unmatched — even if the acoustics may not be the best in the state.

  Bing Concert Hall, Stanford   Bing Concert Hall interior, Stanford  
 
On the campus of Stanford University stands the Bing Concert Hall
The interior of the Bing Concert Hall

 

Northern California also has a Yasuhisa Toyota-designed hall, although it is a smaller facility designed for more intimate performances. The Bing Concert Hall on the campus of Stanford University seats just 842 patrons, but with the audience surrounding the performers in the vineyard style, each is no more than 75 feet from the conductor. With its intimate space and crystal acoustics, even the coughing and rustling of restless audience members becomes part of the experience.

Weill Concert Hall interior
The wall at the back of the Weill Concert Hall can open to let picnickers hear the concert inside.

Just over an hour’s drive north from San Francisco is the 1,400-seat Weill Hall in the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. It hosts the Santa Rosa Symphony, a regional ensemble, that under a new and exciting music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, is making exciting music. The orchestra has even embarked on a program of commissioning full symphonies from American composers. The first result was a wondrous piece by Matt Browne of five movements inspired by Thomas Cole’s paintings, “Course of Empire.”

When fully enclosed, the hall resounds nicely, especially for full-out thunderous passages. For some concerts, the rear wall of the shoebox style hall opens for picnicking patrons on the lawn outside, most enjoying the produce of the vineyards of this, the wine country of California.

Madison, Wisconsin’s Overture Hall interior
A feature of Madison, Wisconsin’s Overture Hall
is its ceiling built to reflect sound

In the middle of the nation you can go from the South where Dallas’s 2,062-seat Meyerson Center dates to 1989, north to Madison, Wisconsin where the stunning Overture Hall sounds almost as good as it looks for up to 2,255 people in the seats of that rarity of good sounding halls: a multipurpose room which also can be set up for opera, ballet or even traveling Broadway musicals.

Severance Hall, Cleveland
Severance Hall is the home of the Cleveland Orchestra

Four hundred miles to the east of Madison, the Cleveland Orchestra, which has been among the nation’s finest for at least half a century, holds forth in another hall that is noted for its visual beauty as well as for its fine sound. On the outside, Severance Hall is a stately classical structure that fits right in with the other notable buildings around University Circle, such as the Cleveland Museum of Art. Inside the auditorium, however, you find yourself in an Art Deco environment of aluminum leaf. When the hall was first built in the 1930s the acoustics were disappointing. A mid-century alteration, when George Szell was the music director, improved the sound at the expense of the visual pleasures of the hall. But the renovation in 2000 managed to fix both problems and today the hall looks as good as it sounds and sounds as good as it looks.

  David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center   Mostly Mozart setup for the interior of Geffen Hall  
 
New York’s Lincoln Center includes the hall now named for David Geffen
The Mostly Mozart setup for the interior of Geffen Hall

 

In New York, if you can’t visit Carnegie Hall, you can check out David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center. Yes, it used to be Avery Fisher Hall, but they took Fisher’s name down and sold the naming rights to the movie mogul and philanthropist for a reported $100 million. Some of that money may well help in the effort to improve the acoustics which has been a goal ever since the hall opened in 1962. The latest effort will convert it from a typical shoebox arrangement to a variant similar to what has been used there for the Mostly Mozart festivals with audience behind and on each side as well as in front of the orchestra.

No matter where you go, if you love classical orchestral music as much as I do, you would do well to include at least one visit to a major hall in each city you plan to visit.

     
 
 
 
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