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An Interview with Russell Johnson, Acoustician

Kimmel Center: What is Artec Consultants Inc?

Russell Johnson: Artec is unique. It is probably the only company in the world with a group of highly motivated specialists providing comprehensive services in the planning and designing of every technical aspect of world class performing arts spaces for opera, theater, concerts and recitals. Our specialists cover a broad range of disciplines: designers, acousticians, musicians, architects, former directors of performing-art venues and experts in theatrical lighting, machinery, rigging and sound reinforcement equipment. Artec’s basic philosophy of opera house and concert hall design can be neatly summed up in one word: versatile. Our concert halls, for example, provide excellent acoustics not just for large symphony orchestras, but excellent acoustics for almost countless forms of music performance - string quartets, choral groups, voice recitals, piano, chamber orchestra, tiny orchestras using period instruments and so forth.

KC: What is your particular specialty?

RJ: I have five decades of experience in architecture and acoustics for the performing arts. The first job that I had (for which I was paid) giving theater design advice was in 1947. Then I spent a few years working as an architect. In 1954 I went back to specializing in acoustics and theater architecture for the performing arts. I founded Artec in 1970, and since then, the company has built an international reputation for excellence in the planning and design of performing arts buildings.

"I can't think of any other performing arts center that has presented this combination of opportunities. If we have met them, it's due to the inspired work of everyone involved: RPAC, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Rafael Viñoly, and the many, many people who were determined to make this project succeed." 
— Russell Johnson

KC: How does Artec go about planning a performing arts space?

RJ: We are usually retained by the building owner at the very beginning of the project. We help in the conception of the project: planning the types of activities that will take place, the number of performance spaces that will be needed and the number of seats each space should provide. We then often provide the basic design of the performing arts spaces -- the shape of the rooms, the size of the stage platforms, the number of balconies and such. All of the above is accomplished through a very collegial collaboration with the owner and their chosen architect.

KC: What is your involvement with The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts?

RJ: We were retained to be the consultants on the acoustics and sound-and-communications for Verizon Hall - the new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra - and the recital theater in which drama, modern dance, pop music concerts, seminars, recitals, chamber orchestra and musical comedy will be presented.

KC: How did you work with the orchestra musicians?

RJ: Bob Wolff and I started to meet with the Orchestra’s Players’ Committee for the new hall about 14 years ago, and through the years we have spent a great deal of time listening to them explain their needs. From the beginning, they emphasized that they did not want their hall to change what they described as "the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra." This was their major concern: they wanted a hall that would support their sound as they now hear it, but not change it. A very, very challenging task. Almost impossible to achieve.

KC: What is the major aspect of the acoustical design of Verizon Hall?

RJ: As in any concert hall, the complete elimination of extraneous noise, including but not limited to exterior vehicular noise and sirens, boilers, transformers, escalators, elevators, fans pushing air into the room at too high a speed, drinking fountains, refrigerators nearby...There are literally hundreds of noises to be aware of and eliminate.

Once the noise has been eliminated, then the sound of music is, in effect, free to be heard with all its nuances intact. The elimination of noise makes possible the almost magical sound of musical instruments and singing voices. The sound in a concert hall must have strength, impact, punch and fullness. Sound that’s even-handed in respect to frequency - "flat frequency response". Sound with lows that are not too weak, with highs that are not too powerful. The clarity and the reverberance must be in a natural balance with each other.

Under perfect conditions, the musicians and the conductor can hear, or sense, what the audience is hearing. There should be no distancing effect between the orchestra and the public, no harshness of sound, no echoes, no frequency imbalances. It should feel as if there is air around the music, as if the music is floating.

KC: How did Artec collaborate with the architect, Rafael Viñoly?

RJ: Bob and I worked closely with representatives of RPAC, the Players’ Committee, artistic directors, and theater planners. The team met early in the process to address questions that had to be resolved before the design work could proceed. It was a complicated process, with tens of thousands of decisions to be made.

KC: Describe some of the elements in the merger of architecture and acoustics; for example, the adjustable acoustics chambers and the acoustic canopy system.

RJ: After the basic design is established, Artec recommends certain acoustic design features. They include "Instant Adjustability" - an extensive system of remote-controlled curtains and banners of velour or canvas that absorb sound and reduce reverberation.

Along the sides of the hall, hollow spaces can be opened or closed by remote control to increase or decrease the power of the sound and the reverberation.

The canopy system over the concert platform consists of huge sound-reflecting panels that can be raised and lowered above the musicians. They affect the hall’s overall sound, as well as the way in which the musicians hear one another. They serve mostly as a "valve" to adjust the balance between the articulation of the sound of music and the reverberance.

KC: What does it mean to say that a concert hall can be "tuned"?

RJ: We never use that word. Artec differs on this subject from other acoustic advisers. We say that performances of music in Verizon Hall will have a broad range of characteristics. Through a system of moving fabric, variable cubage, and the canopy system above the players, we can achieve the best acoustics for anything from a single harpsichord or acoustic guitar to a huge-scale choral work with 115 musicians and 280 singers. Verizon Hall will have extremely versatile acoustics.

KC: Does your work end with the opening of The Kimmel Center?

RJ: Not at all. We will work with the soloists, artists and the music administrators to decide what adjustments should be used, and to explain what is possible in the way of adjustments. Even with fairly sophisticated adjustable features, there are still refinements to be made.

Seven or eight months after the opening, after the halls have hosted a wide variety of music formats, we will discuss how close the sound is to the desires of the musicians and other performers. We will work with everyone involved to achieve the best possible results.