“Looks Beautiful, Sounds Beautiful”
The story of how exquisite attention to detail made the Concert Hall at Drew the gem that it is.
Music professor Garyth Nair was enjoying a sail on Long Island Sound in July 2001 when he retrieved a message on his home answering machine summoning him back to New Jersey. Drew President Thomas H. Kean wanted to talk to the music department’s senior faculty. Nair parked his boat, the 22-foot Sea Chanter, in Connecticut and headed south by train. He knew something big was up, and he hoped it was word that Drew was finally getting a new concert hall. The university had seven concert venues on or near campus, but none pleased Nair, who considered the acoustics in most of them barely tolerable.
Under Kean, a former governor of New Jersey known for his support of the arts, Drew had committed to building a new arts center back in 1994. The center was envisioned as a spacious and vastly upgraded new home for the college’s cramped art, theatre arts and music departments. Funding problems caused Drew to postpone construction of the portion housing the music department, however, which had fewer majors. Nair, a former professional singer and conductor of the Drew University Orchestra and Chorale, was crushed. But he went on quietly politicking for a hall. He put out a survey showing that 17 percent of the college’s liberal arts students participated in a performing ensemble. He put together a CD, “Drew Performs.” Whenever he ran into Kean, he did some good-natured lobbying. When ground was broken for the art and theatre arts wings of the Dorothy Young Center for the Performing Arts, he had music students mass at the site and hold aloft red carnations.
At the meeting Kean said he had come up with a $5 million grant from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Nair was elated. “President Kean announced that he was putting in for an appropriation for the music wing of the arts building—complete with concert hall!” he wrote in his boat log after returning to Norwalk that evening.
Six months later the university retained an architect and raised additional funding for the project. On the evening of Feb. 20, 2005, the new $11.6 million, 430-seat concert hall at Drew officially opened, with student musicians performing. Candlelight illuminated the outside path for concertgoers, who included Kean and other distinguished guests. The hall’s intimate interior and acoustics won high praise from audiences and performers alike, not only on that night but on many occasions since. “It’s a special hall. It not only looks beautiful, but sounds beautiful. When we are there, we always play our best,” says violist Paul Neubauer of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which has held an annual concert series at Drew since 2006.
What audiences may not realize is how much effort went into the design, or the degree to which Nair was involved. As the university’s representative on the development team, he presided over the process like a midwife attending a difficult birth. Nair is a voice teacher and an expert on the science of singing, but he also knows something about building. For six years he ran a company specializing in old house restoration. During the planning process he found himself thinking constantly about the design. “One time I actually woke up in the middle of night with an idea of how to shoehorn ancillary space into the building,” he said during an interview late in 2012, one year away from his planned retirement from Drew. “I turned the lights on, got out my drafting table and started working.”
The other members of the design team were Princeton architect Michael Farewell and acoustical designer Russell Cooper from JaffeHolden consultants in Norwalk, Conn. “We fit together like a hand and glove,” Nair recalls. “Michael goes to concerts all the time. At my first meeting with him I said, ‘I’ll supply you the hall vision thing, and you’ll tell me what we can’t do in terms of physics.’”
Concert hall acoustics are a blend of science and art, influenced by the size and shape of the room enclosing the sound, as well as the materials used to construct and furnish it. Success is anything but guaranteed. A concert hall that is an architectural masterpiece may also be an acoustical dud. According to Nair, that shouldn’t happen. “There’s been an explosion of new halls worldwide. If one is willing to do the research, and visit halls, one can see the mistakes and the successes and learn from them,” he says.
When an instrument or the human voice produces sound, it bounces off multiple reflecting surfaces before it dies out. In a highly absorbent room, said to be acoustically “dry,” sound dies out very quickly; in a “wet” room, with more reflective surfaces, sound takes longer to die away. (Each successive reflection reaches a listener a little later and a little softer, but the listener perceives them as one signal.)
“When you’re in a wet hall, you can feel reverberation. You can sense it around you—it’s live, vivid. When it’s dry, with little or no reverberation, there’s a deadness, like a padded coffin,” says Nair. “Of course a hall can be too wet. Imagine an orchestra performing in a cathedral, performing something very fast and complex. It would take so long for the sound to die out.”
Different kinds of music have different optimal reverberation times. Drew’s musical ensembles had optimal reverberation times ranging from 1.4 seconds (for a soloist) to 2.1 seconds (for the orchestra plus chorale). The design goal for the new hall was a reverberation time of 1.9 seconds; actual time, measured after construction, was 1.8 seconds. Because the hall has adjustable acoustical features like motorized curtains, the concert producer can tailor the acoustics to a particular performer.
Nair’s original inspiration for the space was the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, a tent-like, asymmetrical building built in the early 1960s, with the stage in the center of the hall and terraced seating. He wanted a space that looked modern, with a warm and inviting ambience. The final plan combined features of the Berlin hall with features from the traditional “shoebox” concert hall model.
Working within the allowable space and budget created challenges. To create additional volume within the building, for example—music needs space—the planners did away with the solid ceiling in the initial design and created an acoustically transparent ceiling of cloth stretched over a frame. Removing the solid ceiling, however, eliminated a noise barrier that would muffle noise from busy Morristown Municipal Airport. That problem was solved by reinforcing the roof with thick slabs of concrete.
To direct sound back to the house and the stage, the team designed a large acoustic reflector for the ceiling. Known as “the jewel”—it is shaped like a teardrop and ringed with lights—the acoustic reflector is nearly 48 feet long and about 20 feet wide, at its widest. Other original features included a ventilation system that circulates air without creating noise, and a “floating,” NBA-regulation, wood stage floor, with a give of 3/16 of an inch, to resonate bass frequencies.
Nair knew the hall had top-notch acoustics. But he did not have proof until he heard the first sounds reverberate through the air. That moment came two weeks before the hall’s public opening, as students were rehearsing. “I experienced a sense of profound joy and relief I cannot begin to describe, a sense of ‘Damn, it works!’” says Nair, who proceeded to put an assistant conductor in the podium while he sat in at least a quarter of the hall’s chairs to listen. The students, many of whom were used to playing in a gym, were no less moved. Some had broken down in tears the first time they walked in.
New Jersey jazz artist Jerry Vezza, who is Drew’s piano technician, got a tour of the hall before the official opening. He sat down at the piano on the stage, and began to play. “I was totally blown away,” recalls Vezza, who described the experience that night over dinner with an old friend, cellist David Finckel, co-director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. “I happened to mention there’s this amazing hall in his hometown of Madison. I said, ‘This is a world-class acoustic hall, you wouldn’t believe it.’ David said, ‘Really? We’re thinking of doing a satellite concert series outside the city, but we only want to do it in a good hall.’”
Finckel visited Drew, taking his cello. He spent the next year setting up the Chamber Music Society series.
Today the concert hall at Drew is in use 300 days a year and hosts about 90 public events, according to concert manager Ellis Hilton. Thanks to a grant from Verizon, it is wired for digital recording and live video and internet streaming. Noted artists who have performed or recorded in the hall include harpist Bridget Kibbey, pianist Roman Rabinovich and the early music ensemble Artek. “My absolute favorite was a lute duet, played by Grant Herreid and Daniel Swenberg,” said Hilton, a musician himself. “You could hear every single thing they did. It was so beautiful.”—Mary Jo Patterson