Ear for Design 

Acoustics at the new CenterStage promise to be more bright and clear. But the true test will come with an audience.

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Preview photo spreads and walking tours are giving Richmonders a fairly good idea of the looks of the Carpenter Theatre, the main component of the new Richmond CenterStage complex. But the sound of the now twice-renovated movie palace won't be known until it's reopened and tested in a variety of musical styles. It will get that chance soon — classical, country, bluegrass, R&B and jazz are on tap in September.

The first renovation of the former Loew's Theater, known as the Carpenter Center for most of its 21-year history, yielded a sound “that was more treble-friendly than bass-friendly,” says Jonathan Friedman, who as principal bassoonist of the Richmond Symphony performed in the hall as frequently as any musician in town.

The orchestra's wind players had “trouble hearing the string sections in front of them,” he says. Lower strings tended to get lost in the mix. Cramped seating on the stage made the sound of nearby instruments “overwhelming” while more distant voices were nearly inaudible, Friedman recalls.

Acoustical renovation of the hall should ease or solve those problems, says Mark Holden, a partner in JaffeHolden, CenterStage's acoustical designer. An enlarged stage, a new shell that encloses the orchestra and projects its sound into the auditorium, acoustical “clouds” bridging the theater's proscenium arch and an amplification system that can be adapted to different kinds of music and speech should “allow for better quality of sound and a better blend of sound,” Holden says.

The Connecticut-based acoustician describes these as “tried-and-true, flexible systems … well-understood by [sound] technicians and artists.” Once users know how to get the most of the acoustical modifications, “we'll have a space with excellent potential as a concert hall,” he says, with “more brightness, more clarity and better hearing [among] musicians.”

“Discreet enhancement,” as Holden terms it, will brighten sound in the most notorious dead spot in the theater, the seats under its big, low-hanging balcony. Orchestra-level seats have been raised so the stage won't loom so high over the audience in the front rows. More comfortable seats and more space between rows, especially in the upper balcony, as well as more space onstage, should improve the musical experience for both performers and listeners.

Holden expects the hall to be more reverberant, but avoids predicting how much more until musicians put it to the test.

CenterStage's other performance spaces, the 200-seat Gottwald Playhouse and 150-seat Rhythm Hall, are fitted with acoustical drapes and other sound-isolation features. “They both have pretty sophisticated sound-installation designs to prevent sound bleeding from one space to another,” Holden says.

Once the symphony starts performing in the Carpenter Theatre, Friedman says, “first and foremost I'll be listening for how my instrument sounds. After that, whether I can hear the other instruments I need to blend with.” As a listener, he says, “I would listen not only for reverberation, but quality of sound — whether I'm hearing the full spectrum or some sound frequencies more prominently than others.”

Erin Freeman, the symphony's associate conductor, spent the last week of August leading sound checks of the hall with volunteer musicians from the symphony and its youth orchestras and chorus, the Richmond Philharmonic, Richmond Concert Band and others. “Our test music [ran] the gamut from small groups to chamber orchestra to full orchestra and chorus,” Freeman says, “but not with an audience filling the seats. So the real tests will be concerts with the public listening,” beginning with the music, dance and drama opening gala Sept. 12. S

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.

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