A Silver Lining Project: Widening the Range of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Adam Shalleck's brief telling of finding the silver lining in the pandemic with the renovations for the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland was published in the International Association of Venue Manager’s “Venue Professional” magazine, Nov/Dec 2022 issue (volume 41, issue 6). Full text below.
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Interior photo by Josh Partee.
A couple of years before the pandemic, the Portland’5 and the Oregon Symphony, anchor tenant for the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall were coming to the same conclusion about acoustic improvements, each for their own reasons. The grand former vaudeville and movie palace was adapted and renovated in 1987 for use primarily as a concert hall. Those efforts brought the quality of acoustics for classical music a long way forward within the budgets and approaches available at the time. The shell components were nearing the end of their useful life, and P5 wanted to address the heavy orchestra shell’s encumbrance of the stage when not in use. For the Oregon Symphony the auditorium and on-stage acoustics had room for improvement and there became a need for greater acoustic and staging flexibility to better support a wider array of uses. A study was done to address the issues that proposed a significant physical intervention, but at a large cost and an untenable down time. Both entities wondered if an electronic solution was appropriate. I was brought in initially to consider the facets of putting in a Meyer Sound Constellation system.
In short, an electronic approach to acoustics in this context is a cohesive system made up of microphones in many parts of the hall, and then processing the redistribution of sound to individually addressed speakers to create a more balanced and enveloping experience. Sound qualities and reverberation can be adjusted to compensate for shortcomings in a room, and relevant to programming: with settings to suit a wide range of performance and music types at the press of a button. How does it do that? Magic in boxes, but in a 2,800-seat hall it would involve nearly four hundred (FOUR…HUNDRED) mics and speakers and hundreds of miles of wire. The implementation would involve a large management, design and construction team to sensitively place the device layout from Meyer throughout the historic auditorium and stage. This would be the largest application of Constellation in a pre-existing venue in the U.S. and the first in a re-purposed vintage movie palace. But there is more to it.
On-stage the massive elements of the orchestra shell became unnecessary acoustically – the system takes care of the ensemble hearing each other. The old shell was chopped into bits and recycled responsibly. If you are an acoustics consultant, certainly your eyes have rolled by now – I realize it’s more complicated and controversial than that and you should know me not to be a heretic, but I only have 750 words here.
So, no acoustic shell – what then are the opportunities and challenges? The physicality of the system requires the positioning of a few dozen speakers, mics and concert lights on stage by any means as long as it’s acoustically non-reflective. Though they could play on a black stage like a dance company, in the Schnitz’s context some form of complimentary scenery to visually contain the ensemble and mask backstage was in order. The massive overhead acoustic canopies are gone (GONE!). Many of the on-stage devices are on familiar rock and roll trusses that we masked with fabric borders – light, thin and demountable – availing newfound production flexibility.
The historic treatments in the auditorium required dozens of different mounting conditions for the devices and heroics to get people and wire to them. There was the need and some moderate opportunity to add acoustic absorption to the walls of the hall, but I wanted the audiences to also get a visible improvement. Up until their removal in the ’87 makeover for acoustic reasons the proscenium and organ bays were adorned with elaborate decorative drapes. Reincorporating them provided a two-way benefit – acoustic utility and visual delight. Using historic references, preservation architect Architectural Resources Group developed a motif masterfully hand painted onto fringed draperies in a six-layer assembly.
The original plan was to implement the project in phases during summer dark seasons. The bug changed that, and thanks to the perseverance of the funders we could take advantage of the shut-down – a silver lining.
Giving the hall a very adjustable acoustic range means improved support for a more diversified program. We are in an era where it is an even more paramount priority to seek all the ways to do that. The landmark Schnitz has another life, it sounds amazing, even under the deep balcony, so in effect there are hundreds of new acoustically viable seats. It was a milestone project for the team as a ray of impactful, lasting sunshine for Portland.