Game-changing sound system for Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Oregon Symphony

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This weekend, patrons of the Oregon Symphony will likely check their ears when they attend the season opening concert. There may even be a hum during intermission with members of the audience pushing each other, exclaiming, “Did you hear what I heard?”

That’s because the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, the home of the symphony in Portland, has undergone a complete acoustic overhaul with the installation of the Constellation Acoustic System, a technologically advanced sound system designed for the historic building.

The installation did not require huge architectural changes often expected with acoustic improvements. Developed by Meyer Sound, which is headquartered in Berkeley, Calif., The Constellation sound system uses microphones to pick up sound that is digitally processed and sent to speakers throughout the room.

Meyer Sound has used its Constellation system in 150 venues around the world, but Schnitz’s installation marks the first time a large orchestra has used it in its main venue, according to Scott Showalter, president and CEO of Oregon Symphony.

It’s a godsend for the venue, which opened in 1928 as the Portland Publix Theater. In 1920, the place changed ownership and became the Paramount Theater. After a total renovation in 1983, it was renamed Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and became the home of the Oregon Symphony a year later.

Unfortunately, the building’s original design as a vaudeville and then cinema hall did not meet modern demands for quality acoustic support for unamplified live instrumental music. The sound varied depending on where a person was seated and the performers had difficulty hearing each other. A shell of reflective panels on the sides and ceiling of the stage alleviated the situation but did not achieve optimum sound quality.

In 2015, a contingent from the Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, which oversees the Schnitz, heard an implementation of the Constellation system in the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox rehearsal space. They were impressed, and representatives of the Oregon Symphony visited several other venues to hear the system the following year, winning the decision to bring it to Portland.

“We realized that the Schnitz’s shell was nearing the end of its physical life and we had to do something about it,” said Robyn Williams, executive director of the Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. “It would cost $ 3-4 million just to replace the hull and that would still be a flawed solution. “

The shell of the room was only an obstacle. According to Tim Boot, director of global marketing at Meyer Sound, there were several significant challenges.

“The hall has four acoustic zones,” Boot said, “There’s the stage with different acoustics up and down, the seating area at orchestra level, under the balcony, which is an extremely deep area with a low ceiling, and the upper balcony Ideally, we want big acoustics.

Another big challenge was the lack of warmth in the sound.

“The heat is boosted in the low frequencies,” Boot said, “and this room is deficient in the low frequencies. Cinema palaces are relatively light in construction. In the low frequencies, musicians have to play as hard as they can to reach you.

This means that the bass strings and brass instruments of the orchestra could not be heard as well as they should. Even the viola and bass sections of choral groups struggled to project themselves into the Schnitz.

The acoustic renovation was funded by a consortium including the Oregon Symphony, the Portland’5 Foundation, the City of Portland, and several foundations and trusts.

“The project budget was $ 9.6 million and included scenic elements, structural work, hangings, demolition of old hulls and safety improvements in addition to the Constellation system,” said Russell Kelban, symphony vice president for marketing and strategic engagement. “The Constellation coin alone was budgeted around $ 5 million.”

Inside the Schnitz, Meyer Sound has installed 86 ambience-sensing microphones and 293 loudspeakers. The panels that hung above the musicians to reflect the sound towards the audience have been removed. The stage paneling has changed and some paneling has been enhanced in the hall.

“Nothing in the Constellation system is amplified,” Boot said. “There is no trickery like phase cancellation or sound cancellation. Instead, the reverberant acoustics of the space can be changed and the reflective sound enhanced.

The result, as recently demonstrated to representatives of local news organizations, has been impressive. The demonstration included a clarinet quintet from the orchestra: principal clarinetist James Shields, violinists Emily Cole and Greg Ewer, acting principal violist Charles Noble and cellist Pansy Chang.

As the ensemble played part of the first movement of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, visitors wandered around to hear how things sounded. When the Constellation system was turned off, the sound of the ensemble was diminished under the balcony. With the system on, the sound under the balcony was equal to the sound in the main space, even from the cello.

The system could also extend the decay time of the sound, which was evident when Ewer played a movement from a Bach sonata. But the reverberation was more pronounced with solo trumpeter Jeffrey Work’s solo of a dance by French Renaissance composer Claude Gervaise on the piccolo trumpet. It looked like Work was playing in a European cathedral.

The musicians praised the new sound system.

“The balance between near and far musicians has improved dramatically,” Shields said. “The warmth and sound quality are much improved in addition to the clarity of being able to hear around the orchestra. “

Work added, “Musicians and audiences alike will feel the grandeur of this hall. Our experience is much better and the emotional connection with the audience will be much better. “

The orchestra and its new musical director, David Danzmayr, are tuning the hall with the new sound system. With the push of a button on the tablet, the sound can be changed to provide an optimal experience for each piece that will be played.

The Constellation system is expected to be well trained at the symphony season premiere on Saturday. The orchestra will perform the world premiere of “Time In” by Portland composer Kenji Bunch, “Elegía Andina” (“Andean Elegia”) by Gabriela Lena Frank and Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony (“Resurrection”), a massive work by 90 minutes which will feature soprano Susanna Phillips, mezzo Sasha Cooke and choir. It promises to be a touching return for musicians and audiences alike after a 19-month hiatus due to the pandemic. Tickets are available at orsymphony.org.

– James Bash, for The Oregonian / OregonLive


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