Orchestra Hall to get 'massive' acoustical revamp, says Muti

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association plans to redouble its efforts to fix the hall's problematic acoustics, CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti said in an interview with the Tribune this week.

An auditorium whose dry, blunt, unresonant sound was not significantly improved (and, some say, was made worse) by several expensive renovations over the years is to undergo "a massive change" with respect to acoustics, Muti said.

The respected Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota was invited to consult with Muti and orchestra officials during the conductor's residency here in April, the conductor added.

"This is a potential project and very much in the exploratory phase," said CSO spokeswoman Rachelle Roe. "There are numerous details to study and learn about before we can determine whether this sort of project is feasible. It would be premature for us to discuss any part of this exploration before we have more concrete information about the many elements involved."

Toyota has served as chief acoustician for more than 50 projects worldwide, including such acoustical success stories as Walt Disney Concert Hall, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Suntory Hall in Tokyo; and Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. He is the company director and U.S. representative of Nagata Acoustics of Tokyo.

Cautioning that the acoustical revamp still is in an exploratory stage, Muti said he and Toyota discussed what could be done to correct deficiencies in the sound energy coming off the stage and the way in which that energy is dispersed throughout the 2,500-seat auditorium.

"I always leave it to the technicians to do their work," Muti said. "But he seems confident he can make a big improvement. We hope so."

It is Muti's view that although the sound that reaches the ears of audience members "doesn't suffer" in quality or quantity, "the reverberation is not enough," and there are further problems with the distribution of high and low frequency sound throughout the hall, which dates from 1904. Also, the problem of orchestra musicians being unable to hear each other clearly from opposite ends of the wide stage persists.

Toyota and his fellow acousticians "are working on the subject and can give us an answer. We are in good hands," Muti said.

He did not say when the actual remedial work would be undertaken, or at what cost, since those are questions only the association can answer, he added.

The most extensive attempt thus far to improve the hall's acoustics was at the heart of the $110 million renovation and expansion that in 1997 transformed Orchestra Hall and the surrounding spaces into Symphony Center.

Turning to more personal matters, the 71-year-old Muti said he very much hopes to remain CSO music director beyond the expiration date of his current, five-year contract in summer 2015.

"Officially I cannot announce anything yet, because there still are things in the general contract the lawyers are working on," he explained. "But as far as my relationship with the orchestra is concerned, I am happy to continue as music director, because our relationship is becoming tighter every day. I don't see any reason to leave the orchestra, to go to another city, or to be (a free agent).

"My love for the orchestra and for the city is so special that I feel really at home in Chicago. The music-making with this orchestra, the way we work together, is so full of joy. When you have a great orchestra that responds to you, you don't have to (lean on) the musicians, because they give you everything you want."

Dividing his musical year between the CSO, conducting opera at the Rome Opera (where he is honorary conductor for life), and fulfilling guest engagements with the Vienna Philharmonic and at the summer Salzburg festivals remains for him "a wonderful balance for the final portion of my life," he added.

Muti said that finding new ways to make the CSO more relevant to "the communities that still are far removed from the orchestra" will continue to be an urgent priority during the remainder of his tenure with the Chicago Symphony.

"Performances alone are never enough," he said. "Having in hand a treasure like this orchestra, we must work very hard to make it more available for the spiritual and cultural needs of the city, nation and world. There is a lot yet to do."

That said, Muti is putting his civic pride, and that of his musicians, behind another winning home team.

Wearing a Chicago Blackhawks sweatshirt emblazoned with "Muti 19," the CSO music director took time from his CSO rehearsal Wednesday afternoon to lead his musicians in a video recording of the Hawks' goal song, "Chelsea Dagger."

The brief show of solidarity ahead of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final Saturday night at the United Center revealed a previously unexpected side of the maestro's musical persona: As a conductor of symphonic jazz, Muti can swing with the best of them.

Inevitably the video calls to mind former music director Georg Solti's conducting the CSO in the "Bear Down, Chicago Bears" fight song ahead of the team's Super Bowl victory in January 1986.

 

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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