Severance Hall: Acoustics Through Concert Hall Design

Posted by Elizabeth Alton on Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Exterior view of Cleveland's Severance Hall

Our site’s founder has previously mentioned that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once famously called architecture “frozen music.” It’s through that haunting lens that we’re taking a closer look at the acoustic concert hall design of one very special venue in the American heartland.

Concert halls must serve two masters. They have to achieve the designer’s vision for beauty in their structure. At the same time, concert halls are carefully crafted to fully liberate the music created within their walls. Perhaps the best example in the United States of this exquisite combination of architectural splendor and superior acoustic performance is Severance Hall in the heart of Cleveland, Ohio.

There are a number of challenges in making a building beautiful while crafting its interior to enhance the musical experience. The materials used, the shapes constructed and how each component is installed all play a critical role. Concerns include not only blocking out as much exterior noise as possible, but capturing and distributing the sound produced from the stage evenly and with a deep resonance. Ideally, this is achieved without any artificial amplification. Many say that this is a lost art in our current age of high-tech microphones and speakers. Severance Hall manages to achieve these things from an acoustic design perspective, while also providing a beautiful venue for visitors to enjoy classical and other music.

Severance Hall Cleveland Ohio interior view

Severance Hall was originally constructed in 1931 to house the Cleveland Orchestra. The most recent major overhaul, costing a total of $36 million, took place from 1998-2000. Regarded among many music lovers as the most beautiful of all concert halls in the United States, Severance Hall features an elegant Georgian exterior that fits in well with the classical architecture of other nearby buildings. The grand entrance foyer, with its soaring columns, is a breath-taking gateway to a surprisingly diverse interior design palette. Patrons enjoy detailing that includes Art Deco, French Nouveau, Egyptian Revival, Classicism and Modernism, all of which is tied together into a unified whole by such recurring themes as the lotus flower blossom and papyrus leaves.Severance Hall Lobby

The hall’s legendary acoustics were not always so, and have continued to change and evolve over time. To make the acoustics better match a symphonic hall, a new concert shell was installed in 1958. Innovations in the project included curved side panels of maple that were filled with sand to a depth of nine feet to create the most reflective, solid surface possible. Additional panels overhead directed sound from the stage outward into the auditorium. All carpeting and curtains were removed from seating areas in order to maximize sound reverberation. It was only after this project that the hall’s acoustics became the stuff of legend.

Lobby view of Severance Hall, Cleveland Ohio

The more recent restoration project included refurbishing the 6,025-pipe, 94-rank E. M. Skinner organ that had essentially been entombed by the paneling of the 1958 project. It was restored and moved to a more usable location on stage. Meanwhile, acoustician Jaffe Holden Scarbrough of Norwalk, Connecticut was the one charged with preserving and enhancing those legendary acoustics. When the hall re-opened in 2000, critical opinion was unanimous – Severance Hall sounds every bit as good as it looks. It is nothing short of stunning.

Severance Hall ceiling detail

For music lovers and concert hall design fanatics, experiencing Severance Hall firsthand is reason enough to plan a visit to Cleveland.

 Image sources: The Cleveland Orchestra

One response to “Severance Hall: Acoustics Through Concert Hall Design”

  1. David J Gill says:

    Severance Hall was designed in 1931 by Cleveland’s leading architects of the era, Walker & Weeks. It has always been an aesthetic success, but a small miracle that the acoustics are quite good.

    An acoustical theory of the 1920’s gaining theoretical favor was a low to no reverberation concept. The idea was to maximize direct, natural sound and eliminate reverberation (the concept was soon discredited.) Severance was conceived along these lines but managed to be acoustically acceptable until 1958 when Szell had a new concert shell that installed made an enormous difference.

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