Saturday, July 25, 2009

Photos: Meyerson Symphony Center (Part 3/3)

The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, TX, is a Pritzker Prize masterwork by I.M. Pei and Russell Johnson, nestled in the heart of the Arts District. My class was lucky enough to be offered an in-depth architectural tour of it by architect Tom Cox. There are so many photos and so much information to cover, that I've split it into a three part series.

Part 1: The Exterior
Part 2: The Lobby
Part 3: The Concert Hall and Inner Sanctum

This entry will cover Part 3: The Eugene McDermott Concert Hall (which you would only see if you had a ticket) and the mysterious Inner Sanctum (here there be dragons!).

It is nearly impossible to avoid being impressed by the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall. Though Johnson had final word in the hall, most aspects were still designed by Pei, including the case that houses the massive pipe organ. Unlike most organs, the case is designed to allow one to see the full length of the front pipes, though of course there are hundreds more hidden from view behind a thin fabric scrim. The organ is certainly intended as the focal point of the entire hall. In fact, the organist's chair faces the organ. He or she takes their conductor cues from a small closed-circuit TV embedded into the organ. Immediately below the organ is a unique feature to most concert halls, the "choral terrace." Assuming the program in question doesn't feature a choir, one can actually rent a seat here for relatively low-price. The reason for the lower price is, of course, because the accoustics weren't designed to travel up and backwards from the orchestra.

Looking straight upward we see the incredibly complex light booth which also includes various other systems housed in a nearly indescribable shape. I like to call it "The Mothership." I have a feeling that term would not be appreciated in more technical circles, but there you are. It looks like a giant UFO is hovering over the orchestra seating. But it has a definite absolute purpose. Nothing is left to chance or guesswork in here.

Take, for instance, the chairs. The wood is makore African cherry-wood. The upholstery is mohair. The reasons for this is that these two materials most closely resemble the acoustic signature of a human being when the chair is empty. You see, humans affect the accoustic sound of a concert hall just as much as everything else in it. If the chairs are not designed to mimic this signature, the sound will always be highly variable, dependent entirely on the size of the crowd. This way, you could have one person, or you could have one thousand people, and the sound should remain relatively the same.

In the back, up above the Grand Tier, near the ceiling are several grids in the walls. These grids hide a reverberation chamber of 72 concrete doors. If they wish to increase the volume and effect of a program, then doors are closed, increasing the reverb and echo effects. If more doors are opened, the sound is further muted. It's basically the reverse of a floodgate for sound.

Pei wanted a soft, thickly carpeted surface for the floor of the concert hall, but Russell was dead against it. To have truly rich, remarkable sound, the floor needed to be a hard surface. However, the type of surface was not nearly so important as the fact that it was hard. As the orchestral seating area would be the focus of anyone sitting elsewhere and not looking at the players on stage, Pei tiled the main area in Terrazzo. The stair bannister is brown marble. Along the walls are various curtains that may be opened and closed as needed. Typically when a symphony is rehearsing, they will close the curtains to better simulate the sound that the audience will hear. The walls behind the curtains are 12" of plaster covered with a thin wooden facade.

And up this staircase lies the inner sanctum.

The first level of the inner sanctum is either "The Green Room" or "The Greeting Room." Unfortunately I did not think to ask clarification. My guess is that it's actually the Greeting Room, because "The Green Room" would technically be the area behind the stage where the players are getting their costumes and props ready. However, since plays do not happen here, it's entirely possible that symphonic halls call this the Green Room. Regardless, this is where you go if you have a backstage pass and you want to meet members of the orchestra. There is a bar area provided...

...along with a comfortable sitting area, complete with a genuine Andy Warhol painting. Unless one is Meyerson staff or a performer, this is the deepest anyone ever gets into the inner sanctum...

Unless of course you happen to be an architectural class on a field trip! We continued through the back door of the G-Room and found a rather nondescript hallway referred to as "The Library." It is called such because of what is framed along the walls which, to be honest, I completely forgot to look at...
...because I was busy checking out one of the empty dressing rooms, which resembles a very small hotel room. In the photo on the left is my current professor, Ghada Mahasneh, and on the right is Arnie Radman, my professor next semester. Both have been excellent mentors to me so far.

I call this place "The Escape Route." On the left-hand side is the tuning room, where instruments are stored and musicians either prepare to go on stage, or recover from being on stage. On the right are two options. One can either head down "The Library" to the G-Room to greet guests, or alternately, they can make a clean getaway through a door that leads outside of the building.

I rather liked the painting on the far end of The Escape Route.

Looking backwards, and up, one can see the business offices of the Meyerson. I'm curious about the balconies. Is it so the staff can cheer on the performers before and/or after the shows? Is it so they can toss things down to the band, or have things tossed upward? Do they have water-balloon fights? What gives? Maybe it was just a nice gesture by Pei towards the unremembered, unthanked grunts who keep the place running like a well-oiled machine so that the rest of us can enjoy it.

Inside the tuning room, one finds the same exact kind of lockers one likely had in high-school. Unless of course your high school was like mine and simply used holes in the wall because the chronically under-funded band department could only manage to get a bit of donated plywood to make open shelves. But if we'd had lockers for our hundreds/thousands dollar instruments (you know like the kind the sports department got so they could protect those $3 kick-balls?), then they probably would have looked like this. Simple, unassuming, effective.

It should be noted that if you are a harp player, your instrument is so delicate that it requires a separate room for storage.

Through the tuning room, a serene corridor gives ample light and solitude to musicians wanting to go over their sheet music away from the noise, or simply to collect their thoughts.

Finally, the secret musician's lounge, where no music is allowed. This is their private oasis of space, away from everything and everyone. Off to the right is actually even a private courtyard where the remaining musicians who smoke could go out to nick a quick fix, if it weren't for Dallas now being a smoke-free city.

And that wraps up the complete tour. I hope you enjoyed reading this three-part article as much as I enjoyed the tour. Special thanks to Tom Cox for all the great access and information.

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