03/19/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

Science, Concert Halls and Egos

In January 2009 pianist Anne-Marie McDermott gushed to The New York Times about the newly renovated Alice Tully Hall in New York's Lincoln Center, after playing a Steinway there:

"Oh my God, it's heaven," said [McDermott]. "You can do anything: the clarity, the range." She called the sound fat, rich and buttery, and unfamiliar from prerenovation days. "I wouldn't have recognized it," she said.

This seemed to settle the matter: Finally, success in one of the storied and troubled performance spaces in Lincoln Center.

The praise for Alice Tully Hall did not go unanswered for long. Just over a month later, again in The New York Times, music critic Allan Kozinn wrote, "If you've been dreaming ... that the new hall, with its rich hues, will yield a lush, vibrant tone, it's time to wake up." Just in case you didn't get his drift, he added in July, "I hate the new Tully Hall." It's hard to believe that he was talking about the same Tully Hall as McDermott. Could both be right? Could a concert space delight musicians and anger the audience?

It gets worse. Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich's Philharmonic Hall shortly after it opened (to initial acclaim) in 1985. Afterward he offered sage advice for adjustments to the acoustics: "Burn it." Ever since, musicians and critics have agreed that there are intrinsic problems with the Munich design. Discussions have been going on a long time about a completely new space somewhere else, so bad are the design issues.

The original Philharmonic Hall, which went up in 1962 at Lincoln Center, was potentially one of America's premier performance venues, and home of the New York Philharmonic. Leo Baranek, a rising star then, and now the dean of acoustical consultants, drew up the design. Arguments persist today about who did what wrong and when, but there wasn't even a brief period of acclaim after opening night. Beranek himself wrote of that night, years later, "For me, the evening can't end soon enough. I head back to my hotel with a splitting headache triggered by the blare of the orchestra and the choruses and that spot in the Mahler where a percussionist strikes a rail with a sledgehammer."

This time, George Szell administered the coup de grâce. Among several disparaging remarks, he said that the many ineffectively small, ceiling-mounted sound reflectors, doubling as light fixtures, looked like "pregnant frogs with illuminated navels."

The list of mistakes and other defects needing correction was long, but fortunately Avery Fisher of Fisher Electronics generously gave $10.5 million to completely redo Philharmonic Hall in 1972. It became Avery Fisher Hall, which was acoustically improved but remained far from satisfactory. Talk of more modifications commenced almost immediately and has been going on for 40 years. Now renovations "intended to improve the hall's lackluster acoustics" will start in 2017 at the earliest.

Bitter criticism of new performance spaces is apparently a fairly recent phenomenon. As far as we know, Greek theater architects didn't get hammered in the press for bad designs. Only after a science of architectural acoustics was born and consultants began to make recommendations did people apparently become aware of blameworthy acoustics and blameworthy consultants.

In fact, there was no "science" of architectural acoustics, and no consultants either, until 1900. A few years earlier, Harvard's then-president, Charles Eliot, was faced with a severe problem in the new Fogg Art Museum on campus: The acoustics were so bad that it was nearly impossible to understand a speaker in the large lecture hall.

In 1895 Eliot figured that if physicists were good for anything, they could do something about such a problem. He was right. The problem fell to a young assistant professor of physics, Wallace Clement Sabine, a low man on the totem pole.

Sabine dove in. By 1899 he had learned a great deal about acoustics, partly by stuffing the impossible semicircular Fogg space with pillows borrowed from Memorial Hall across the street. Ultimately, a sure fix was found: The old Fogg was knocked down.

Sabine discovered some of the basic principles of concert hall design and approximately how to achieve them. By Beranek's time, more principles of good performance spaces were known, but a few simple calculations and good guesses were still the best implementation available. Part of Beranek's problems included major changes made beyond his control or even knowledge, under various political and financial pressures.

Boston Symphony Hall was in planning stages as word of Sabine's expertise spread. Sabine was retained by architect Charles McKim and became the world's first paid acoustical consultant. He made major changes to McKim's design, including the height of the ceiling. He recommended various materials for walls and flooring. McKim agreed, and the changes were made.

Opening night in 1900 was a success, but soon after, the bad reviews started to roll in. Many people blamed Sabine, who was a sensitive guy -- not a good trait for an acoustical consultant. His measurements showed that some of his predictions were off. Shortly thereafter, Sabine was caught burning his research notebooks on the grass in front of the physics building on the Harvard campus.

Evidently, if you've just designed and built a concert hall, it's a good time to clear out of town.

But wait: Boston Symphony Hall, now widely thought to be perhaps the best concert hall in America, and one of the best on the planet? Today the hall looks like the day it opened, because it hasn't been modified. Bad acoustics are one thing, but can architects design for individual taste when that individual might be a grumpy critic or one of thousands willing to be told what is good and what is bad?

Soon numerical algorithms will be able to synthesize exactly what it will sound like to be sitting in seat 21F, with a full house and orchestra, before the first drop of concrete is poured. Angle the ceiling a bit more? Type in the new angle, and listen again to the synthesized music in seat 21F after enjoying a cup of coffee. Nowadays design principles and computer simulations are so solid that only a foolhardy building committee would make such changes without the consultant's knowledge.

All this should make spanking-new but seriously defective concert halls a thing of the past.

Radical designs like the Munich space can now be made to work. The Walt Disney Concert Hall is as radical inside as its Frank Gehry exterior. Yasuhisa Toyota was responsible for the good acoustics. His success is to be admired; the hall is far from a traditional and "safe" shoebox shape, with many curved walls hiding behind acoustically thin curtains.

Whatever you conclude about Kozinn's remarks, the Tully Hall hoists at least a yellow caution flag about modern acoustical design. Fashion, honest differences of opinion and compromises due to cost and seating capacity suggest that the perfect performance space cannot be built. The acoustical experts who design spaces will always be targets of criticism, even if seat 21F turns out exactly as designed.

I'd still get out of town.