Acoustician: New halls have too many seats behind the stage

Acoustician: New halls have too many seats behind the stage


norman lebrecht

January 28, 2019

The acoustician Rob Harris has published a paper arguing that the sound in new ‘vineyard’ halls like Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie is undermined by having too many spectators packed in behind the stage.

Jonas Kaufmann recently faced protests that he could not be heard in the hall.

Harris argues: ‘There is no fundamental need to locate a significant percentage of a surround hall audience behind the concert platform. What is needed is enough seats behind for the performers to feel at one with the audience, a shared artistic experience. Choir seating can often adequately provide this.
Notwithstanding this, several prominent new symphonic halls have a significant percentage of the
audience behind the performers.’


  • Wai Kit Leung says:

    The classic shoebox shape still works best!

    • barry guerrero says:

      They’re not always great for really large works that involve a big chorus or a stage full of percussion. Smaller things, for sure. Depending on the seat, they’re not always that comfortable either. For me, L.A.’s Disney hall gets it right. Just an opinion, not a fact.

    • Luigi Nonono says:

      It can also be wide and shallow in depth, the height of the ceiling is crucial, and the amount of decoration vital.

    • Mark says:

      A counter-example, of a non-shoebox hall that has generally well-regarded acoustics (and pretty decent sightlines), might be the Tanglewood Music Shed. The BSO likes it, and the summer weather is more comfortable there than in the city…

  • Euphonium Al says:

    I’m not a sound engineer, but more broadly speaking, I think it’s a better experience for both performer and listener when the audience isn’t staring at the back of the musicians’ heads. The vineyard-style seating is awkward for all parties in involved. If I wanted a vineyard, I’d go to one that grows grapes.

  • Petros LInardos says:

    Question: weren’t the lessons learned with the Berlin Philharmonie?

    • Bruce says:

      From what I’d read, I was under the impression that that hall is considered a really good one, although the experiment has proven to be pretty much unrepeatable.

      • Monsoon says:

        I think it’s sound is average, but the sightlines are excellent.

        There are certainly vineyard-style concert halls with excellent acoustics, like Disney and Suntory.

        • Tamino says:

          Disney is ambiguous. So so.
          Suntory, also New Gewandhaus Leipzig, are ‚Berlin vineyard inspired‘, but have very few seats actually behind the orchestra. Only multifunctional choir seats basically.
          There a lesson was learned from the mistakes in Berlin Philharmonie.
          But Hamburg… what were they thinking? Copenhagen, Helsinki… wtf?
          And now again someone seriously is proposing such a layout.
          It makes you wonder…

  • Wilhelm says:

    The vineyard shaped new concert halls are one of the biggest bubble-hoaxes of classical music in the last couple of decades. No good results in Paris, Hamburg, Helsinki (the list goes on…)

    Hopefully all new concert hall construction projects will not consider this as an option.

    • Hornbill says:

      I read in the Financial Times (the architecture column) a few days ago that London’s new concert hall will be a ziggurat with a vineyard arrangement
      “with the audience entirely surrounding the orchestra. It is the form that has been employed (to great acclaim) recently at Paris’ Philharmonie (designed by Jean Nouvel) and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie (Herzog & De Meuron).”

      The acoustician will apparently be Yasuhisa Toyota, also responsible for both Paris and Hamburg.

    • Max Grimm says:

      Well said and there is sufficient proof around to demonstrate that many of the architects and designers can make the proven, more traditional concert hall shapes work inside/as part of their modern architectural designs when they feel like it, ie. Reykjavík, Dortmund, Luzern (designed by Jean Nouvel, with acoustician Russell Johnson), Luxembourg, Bochum etc.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        In the 80s Dallas had I.M. Pei design the Meyerson Symphony Center, with acoustician Russell Johnson: shoebox hall with marvelous acoustics, interesting building.

  • R. Brite says:

    At the Paris Philharmonie, with its superb acoustics, this has not been a problem for me even in orchestral concerts featuring solo singers. Mind you, I’ve spent many enjoyable Proms seasons sitting mostly in choir seats, and the key is to be selective. I don’t usually sit in the RAH choir for operas, for instance.

    • Francis Carlin says:

      I’m sorry but, as well as totally disagreeing with you on the Paris Philharmonie acoustics everywhere in the hall, it is physically impossible to hear a singer properly if you’re sitting behind.

  • Karl says:

    You don’t need an acoustician to tell you that there should not be many seats behind the stage. I have been saying it and I’m just a listener.

  • Manuel Drezner says:

    Ideally, the back of the stage should reflect sound. With audience behind, you get absortion instead and the sound deteriorates

  • Cantantelirico says:

    Funny how it took a famous Baritone to bring this to our attention.

  • Tamino says:

    Hooray, one more saying the obvious truth: the Emperor is naked.

  • Sixtus says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Harris. Advocates of orchestra-in-the-middle concert halls seem to forget that:

    1. Orchestral music and shoebox halls are together a music-delivery system—substantially veer from the acoustics of rectangularity and you will alter the music being delivered, usually to the latter’s detriment. Symphonic music and shoebox-shaped concert halls evolved together in a mutually optimizing fashion. Shoebox rectangularity as suitable for orchestral music has held from the halls of 17th century Baroque palaces, through the rectangular original Gewandhaus (site of Mendelssohn’s influential concerts), right up to the great turn-of-the-last-century halls that also saw the creation of the massive orchestral works of Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler and Elgar (Boston Symphony Hall, Vienna Musikverein, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, London Queens Hall, Leipzig Neues Gewandhaus 1884). In none of these locations was a substantial part of the audience behind the orchestra. More than 300 years of orchestral music was not composed to be heard from behind.

    2. Acoustic instruments, including the human voice, are all inherently directional with certain frequency ranges projected in different directions. This is easily heard by careful listening as you walk around an instrument being played. It is also now easily measured and quantified (see Jürgen Meyer’s “Acoustics and the Performance of Music”). The typical layout of an orchestra also evolved to take full advantage of these various directionalities to optimally project sound past the conductor into the auditorium (even leaving aside my hobby horse of the musical superiority of split violins and the acoustical superiority of putting the cellos on the same side as the 1st violins). It is simply physically impossible for audience members behind an orchestra to get a reasonably balanced sonic viewpoint, however interesting it might be to watch the conductor (a problem that can be solved by having conductor-cam screens at every seat). An obvious example: Mahler’s occasional instructions for some of the winds to raise the bells of their instruments to directly aim into the auditorium (Schalltrichter auf!) will be ineffective from behind an orchestra. (This aggressive-sounding special effect is greatly undercut if the winds are not on risers, and rather steeply stepped ones at that, as photographs show was the custom around 1900.)

    Musically and acoustically, seats behind an orchestra will always be inferior.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      The Musikverein was completed circa 1870, so is hardly ‘turn of the century’. The hall may have wonderful acoustics but it’s mighty uncomfortable in the seating department unless you are on the ground floor facing the orchestra. The seats up the back, upstairs, are too far back to actually see anything. So, it’s far from perfect from a comfort and visual point of view. And today it simply isn’t big enough.

      • Jack says:

        And it has amazing acoustics.

        • Sue Sonata Form says:

          Yes, that’s what I said. It’s the discomfort factor that you experience which often over-rides the pleasure of the acoustics.

      • barry guerrero says:

        I’ve spent time in the Musikverein and I agree with your assessment, unpopular as it might be. Further more, it’s not a great for large works. Smaller things, for sure. I love the orchestra, but the hall can be an impediment when doing something with a large chorus, or a more modern work that needs a full level of percussion. Because of the steeper incline in the Concertgebouw, the VPO’s woodwinds project more clearly when in Amsterdam. By the way, the VPO will be doing Mahler 8 with Welser-Most in the Konzerthaus (the same hall the Bernstein Mahler 8 video was made).

        • Petros Linardos says:

          In the 80s I attended many concerts as a student at the Musikverein and don’t understand your argument about acoustics. I don’t understand 20th century music, but never thought that acoustics got in the way of choral or late romantic music. Brahms Requiem, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss instantly come to memory, played by the VPO and other top orchestras under the usual supects of those days.
          If anything, the VPO strings were sometimes overpowered by the brass. But I was inclined to blame it on the performers, as on other occasions the strings glowed beautifully.

      • Pedro says:

        I have heard some pretty good performances behind the orchestra at the Musikverein, namely Karajan’s pre-New Year concert on Dec. 31, 1986 and Kleiber’s first New Year one on Jan. 1 1989. I was also on the balcony over the orchestra on the right side for Karajan’s last performance ever ( Bruckner 7 on Apr. 23 1989 ) and the sound was amazing.

      • Peter Phillips says:

        I’ve never been to the Musikverein but I was recently at an excellent concert in the Konzerthaus with Stephen Hough and the Wiener Symphoniker. It’s fundamentally a shoe box with a lot of acoustic space for the sound to expand without becoming raucous. I was at the back downstairs in the slightly raised seats and could both see and hear perfectly well. Good use of the foyer afterwards for a jazz session with Hough and members of the orchestra. Two more acoustically fine shoe boxes: the Philharmonic Hall in St Petersburg and the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea – OK I’m biased about that one. A final thought; we may have gleaming new concert halls in a few years but will we be able to afford the orchestras to play in them?

        • phf655 says:

          George Szell thought that the Konzerthaus was a better hall than the Musikverein. Personally, I find that the former is too reverberent and the latter is too dry, but the latter enables a fine clarity.

      • Mark says:

        “isn’t big enough” for what? Many classical ensembles have trouble filling the halls they have.

  • David says:

    Where exactly is this paper? No link is provided…

  • Kyle Wiedmeyer says:

    I guess I’m happy that my local orchestra, the Milwaukee Symphony, will be moving into an intricately decorated and renovated movie palace in 2020, with only a hundred or so seats behind the stage for chorus use, and patron use otherwise.

    • The View from America says:

      Sometimes the converted movie palaces lack acoustical excellence even as the visual “eye-candy” is more than arresting. But in the case of Milwaukee, this move could well be a sonic improvement over the acoustical drawbacks of Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center.

      • barry guerrero says:

        That’s certainly is true in San Jose, CA (silicon valley). I’m very disappointed with the sound in the California Theater (whatever they’re calling it – it used to be a Fox movie theater).

      • Michael says:

        I’m generally not a fan of the sound in the converted theatres. There may be greater presence, but usually a lack of bloom. Although I’m curious to find out how things will look and sound in Milwaukee and may make a road trip to find out.

    • Jack says:

      I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the MSO. I used to live in Milwaukee and knew about all the problems with Uihlein which went beyond acoustics into scheduling and date availability. I applaud their courage in doing this.

  • Bruce says:

    Seems like there really needs to be a back wall for the sound of the horns, percussion, and basses to bounce off of. Without having travelled to a wide variety of halls, the only design that seems like it would work is the kind with a wall of some kind (say 7-8 feet high) behind the orchestra, and choir seating above/ behind the wall. For non-choral concerts, those could be discount seats, although western culture has become so visually oriented that maybe people would be too enraptured by watching the conductor’s face to notice that the sound was inferior.

    • Jennifer says:

      Having sat in the choir seats at a concert in Birmingham Symphony Hall I can confirm that it is fascinating to watch the conductor at work. The sound is different rather than “inferior” but the seats start at about 6 feet above the orchestra stage and are steeply raked (to allow the audience to hear the choir well at choral concerts) so that all the instruments are quite close and can be heard. I can imagine, however, that it would be much more difficult to hear a vocalist singing on the other side (ie. in front) of the orchestra. The concert I attended was orchestral only.

    • graeme gee says:

      Well, that’s more-or-less the layout in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House. It’s got choir stalls and then an organ loft gallery above that. Along with further boxes at the side. But the accoustics in the hall are a total mish-mash anyway and you certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone follow its interior layout (and in 50 years I don’t think anyone has).

  • Monsoon says:

    My hot take:

    I’ve attended concerts at many, many halls throughout the United States and Europe. Maybe 75 percent of the time the sound is flat (but slightly too bright in places) and a bit to dry. Every time a new hall open everyone expects it to sound like the Concertgebouw or the Musikverein, but if history has taught us anything, our expectations shouldn’t be so high.

    Perhaps my biggest objection with some of the newer halls is that the cost have soared for aesthetics and/or to build a performing art campuses (multiple halls, public spaces, restaurants, etc.). Of course concert halls should be visually inspiring, but some of these halls have become monuments to themselves intended to project the wealth and power of the city they reside in. And smaller cities always struggle to support these massive facilities.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      It’s worth remembering that the architect of the Wiener Staatsoper displeased the inhabitants of that city to such an extent that he actually committed suicide!!

      • Petros Linardos says:

        One of them committed suicide: Eduard van der Nüll. The other, August Sicard von Sicardsburg died of tuberculosis six weeks later.

  • John Kelly says:

    I was in Symphony Hall in Boston on Thursday. I go whenever I am in Boston (New Yorker here). There are no seats behind the orchestra. The sound was absolutely sensational, probably the best sound I have ever encountered (includes Vienna and Amsterdam though they are also superb).

    • Phf655 says:

      I am another New Yorker who is love with Symphony Hall. In a few weeks I am traveling there in the dead of winter just to hear Bruckner 9. I know it is heresy, but I think Symphony Hall is substantially better than the Musikvereinsaal (too reverberent and the sound does not project well to the back), and the Concertgebouw (ditto).

      • John Kelly says:

        Karajan apparently also said Boston had a better hall than Vienna. I believe. But am not sure that he visited with the BPO in 1955…

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    Lost count of the great evenings in the Choral Bench and similar seats at Disney Hall. Also helped the sometimes unavoidable vocal evenings due to the singers being pointed the other way.

  • SLSOseasonticket says:

    Powell Hall in St Louis is another hall that has zero seating behind the orchestra and has arguably one of the top acoustics in the country, if not the world. I pray that if they ever renovate the building or add additional space for patrons that they don’t alter the acoustics. These vineyard style halls are a sham.

  • debusschubertussy says:

    Go to Walt Disney Concert Hall and hear the LA Philharmonic for the absolute best concert experience in the United States. Perfect acoustics, great visuals from any seat, and watching Dudamel conduct from behind the orchestra is a real treat too. I wish more concert halls could be more like this.

  • Nick2 says:

    When discussing concert hall shapes, I had always been told that circular or oval shaped venues will be an acoustic disaster. But Christchurch Town Hall is virtually circular and has always received excellent reviews from artists and audiences alike.

  • Dave T says:

    “What is needed is enough seats behind for the performers to feel at one with the audience, a shared artistic experience.”

    Really? Does having patrons on all sides of the orchestra or thrusting the stage into the seating area actually convey or provide a “shared artistic experience”? As an audience member I’ve never felt this. I’m not even sure what it means. Is being close the same as ‘shared’? the same as ‘intimate’, a term also tossed around?

    I would like to hear what orchestral musicians think about this would-be phenomenon, and whether and how the seating set up contributes to it.

  • Joshua Gordon says:

    It depends on the hall. I recall sitting behind the stage in Cologne at the Philharmonie and liking the immediacy of the acoustics (and being a cellist I finally experienced the horn players’ perspective). But in that hall, those seats are tightly stacked up to form the stage shell. I’ve also sat behind the orchestra in Amsterdam and enjoyed it, but that hall is narrower than most of the vineyard halls.

  • David Ward says:

    The recently refurbished Aberdeen Music Hall has pretty good acoustics for both audience and performers, and is near enough shoebox shape. If necessary the stage can be expanded to accommodate a Mahlerian orchestra.

  • John Kelly says:

    By the way, let’s hear it for Detroit. Orchestra Hall has awesome acoustics….

  • M2N2K says:

    How many seats behind orchestra is “too many”? It is obvious that acoustically those seats will always be inferior. But many listeners like them anyway, because they get to watch conductors and because those seats are usually among the cheapest. So, I believe that, regardless of what purists believe, all new halls will continue to be built with some seating behind the stage, because this makes it possible to add a couple hundred extra potential ticket buyers who cannot afford high prices, while limiting the size of the hall, which makes it easier to achieve good sound for the majority of listeners and to bring most of the audience within short distance between them and the performers.

  • guest says:

    Can anybody comment: what’s better acoustically, Minnesota Orchestra Hall, Boston Symphony Hall or Powell Hall? I have heard those maybe the top three in the country.

  • While it is always easier to design for fewer seats, I would contend that it is not the seat count at Elbphilharmonie that is the problem, but the departure from strong supportive shaping that creates the possibility for reverberation development, and the excessive use of diffusion of two narrow a scale.

    Many surround halls provide a valid acoustic experience with a level of connection to the audience that offers a varied, and well-liked experience for patrons to share the performance with the performers and each other.

    Musikverein, Boston, and other arguably great halls are not well-suited to some of the largest repertoire, and should not be the only models on which to base future hall design.

    Careful attention to the broad lessons of the total of the built collection of halls can allow for variety and growth in the palate of options for how we provide a platform for the orchestras of the future.

    The lessons learned in Hamburg should be less about the surroundness of the hall, and more about its fundamental shaping and use of diffusion.

    • Tamino says:

      Sorry, but surroundness is nonsense. For anything vocal. Also for other instruments with pronounced frequency dependent directivity. Surround arena halls are pure visual vanity concepts (with a desperate hope, the acoustical damage can be limited).

  • Sorry- in the first paragraph – “too narrow”