Flying acrylic discs are history as last of Roy Thomson Hall’s sister buildings unveils acoustic makeover

Melbourne’s 1982 symphony hall has lost its Casavant pipe organ along with Theodore Schultz’s acrylic discs as part of a massive renovation project.

Melbourne, Australia’s Hamer Hall, whose acoustics were engineered by the same guy as Roy Thomson Hall’s, has reopened its doors to a fresh, vibrant new sound.

What was then called Melbourne Concert Hall opened in 1982, the same year as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s new home. Two years earlier, a third symphony auditorium with acoustician Theodore Schultz’s stamp on in had opened in San Francisco.

All three spaces suffered from a clear but dry and lifeless sound, despite an array of adjustable baffles and reflectors. All three spaces have now been substantially altered inside.

Renovations in all three halls reduced the volume of the room by lowering the ceiling (in Toronto with a 10-ton flying disc, in Melbourne with a series of flying trapezoidal panels), bringing in the walls and lining the space with more sound-reflecting materials.

Gone in all three are Schultz’s signature clusters of clear acrylic discs dangling from the ceiling above the performers. (In San Francisco, the discs were replaced by clear rectancular pieces that form a sort of canopy over the stage.)

Also tossed in Melbourne was its monumental piece of Canadian content: the Casavant Frères organ that dominated the space above centre stage. The excuse was that it needed a lot of repair, and it simply wasn’t worth the cost.

Roy Thomson Hall’s organ, made by Gabriel Kney in London, Ont., came with two consoles, one mechanically attached to the case, the other on wheels for use on stage, attached electrically. The Melbourne Casavant only had the mechanical link, which meant the organist was always far away from the conductors baton, and public view.

Sir Andrew Davis, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s conductor laureate, led the 1982 opening concert at Roy Thomson Hall as the organization’s music director. He returned for the 2002 re-opening programme because the the orchestra had no music director at the time.

As a trained organist, he has frequently played Roy Thomson Hall’s organ in concert.

Coincidentally, Davis officially becomes music director of the Melbourne Symphony next year, not having to worry about the acoustics, but being deprived of a resident pipe organ.

The Hamer Hall renovation has been part of a much broader revamp of a larger cluster of performing arts spaces in Melbourne. The renovation has taken two years, as opposed to 22 weeks in Toronto. Fortunately, it appears to have been worth the wait, as far as the acoustics go.

Wrote The Australian‘s critic Eamonn Kelly of last weekend’s opening symphony concert (there was an earlier pops concert, headlined by k.d. lang):

Old Hamer Hall was the acoustic equivalent of a neglected Renaissance painting, its colour and detail obscured under grimy varnish. New Hamer Hall restores clarity and vitality to the symphonic sound.

The acoustic is focused, bright, naturalistic and responsive across a vast dynamic range. Gone is the slightly dull, washy sound and the sense of distance from the action.

Schultz, who was highly regarded in his day, died suddenly from a heart attack at age 67 in 1989, so he didn’t have to witness the undoing of his work.

San Franciscans were the first to act, reopening a renovated hall in 1992. Fortunately for them, their Italian-made Ruffatti organ survived the upheaval.

The whole idea behind spending millions of dollars on acoustical renovations is to make sure the sound is, for lack of a better adjective, exciting. Although an audience can’t see it, the vibrancy of what they hear is as much a part of a fine concert experience as a well-turned phrase and a Rosemarie Umetsu gown.

As San Francisco Chronicle music critic Robert Commanday wrote when Louise M. Davies Hall reopened 20 years ago: “It is not simply a question of the right reverberation time, the sustaining of the sound that is so important, as it is a question of increased clarity and immediacy that brings the listener into the music – and the music around the listener.”

John Terauds


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