Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall — A Modern Masterpiece

SLIDESHOW: In the Jean Nouvel-designed music temple, symphonic ensembles represent 60 percent of the programming; jazz, world music, rap and electro-pop account for the rest.

The Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg is another milestone in the quest for the perfect sound.

Picture the biggest concert hall ever. The Elbphilharmonie, built on top of a historic warehouse on the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany, is bigger. This masterpiece, designed by Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, “has been both a dream and a nightmare, world famous, as well as a running joke, an embarrassment and a miracle”, according to German president Joachim Gauck in a speech at the opening of the venue on 11 January.

Outstanding acoustics and innovative architecture are two ingredients of the Elbphilharmonie formula: renowned Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics is the mastermind behind the remarkable acoustics of The Grand Hall — the largest of three concert halls in the Elbphilharmonie. Toyota covered the walls and ceilings with a ‘white skin’ composed of more than 10,000 sheets of gypsum fibre panels. Each acoustic cell was also engineered and given its own volume and pattern. The organic design gives the auditorium a singular, almost lunar, form. This helps absorb any form of echo and projects the music into every corner of the hall. The clear sound is also amplified by an expansive reflector suspended right in the middle of the vaulted ceiling.

“I know I have done my job well when audiences no longer perceive the large distance between their seat and the music,” says Toyota. In the Grand Hall, all visitors are placed within 30m from the conductor and musicians. Optimal listening is guaranteed from every seat, and those seats have become something of a rare commodity. Initially scheduled to appear in 2010, the Elbphilharmonie was unveiled seven years later, after months of revisions and legal disputes.

The quest for perfect sound is not only a contemporary matter. The Greeks had already mastered pristine acoustics inside the Epidaurus Theatre, four centuries before Christ and Stradivarius crafted heavenly violins in the 17th century. Yet, these historic sonic qualities were achieved without the use of technology, 3D printing and parametric design. “Our ancestors mastered their art,” according to Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. “The Elbphilharmonie takes inspiration from three types of structures: Delphi’s ancient theatre, sport stadiums and tents.” The duo also add that, today, concert halls’ spatial arrangements are driven by aesthetics, resulting in a need to combine form with perfect acoustics.

Despite the number of studies on sound, advanced science and technology, how sound moves still remains a mystery. “Prior to an opening, we test all small-scale models, make adjustments. After that, all we can do is pray,”Toyota said in an interview in 2013.

Factor in the diversity of the music played in 21st century concert halls, from baroque to the most experimental, and the equation becomes even more puzzling; concert halls have to respond to an ever-wider demand for diverse programming. “They need to adapt to new kinds of music, to new cultures and generations,” sound expert Guillaume Huret explains, while pointing out that listening to Mozart’s piano concertos or Vivaldi’s ubiquitous Four Seasons recomposed by Max Richter, a British post-minimalist composer, have absolutely nothing in common. “Our goal is to attract younger audiences and less so the traditional elite. We want to build gateways between different patterns of music ownership,” stresses Laurent Bayle, president of the Philharmonie of Paris. In the Jean Nouvel-designed music temple, symphonic ensembles represent 60 percent of the programming; jazz, world music, rap and electro-pop account for the rest. Likewise, the Elbphilharmonie stresses that “variety, quality and accessibility are primary criteria by which the Elbphilharmonie measures its musical profile. As a concert hall of the 21st century, engaging in animated dialogues with classical music masterpieces is as much in focus as the discovery of new sounds”.

New architecture, new acoustics, new territories — the future of sound is still in the making.

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SLIDESHOW: In the Jean Nouvel-designed music temple, symphonic ensembles represent 60 percent of the programming; jazz, world music, rap and electro-pop account for the rest.