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Perfecting the sounds of Eastman's

Rochester Business Journal
December 3, 2010

Here is the problem: Fit a rehearsal hall big enough to accommodate a full orchestra, a recital hall and music school faculty studios into a single building that would sit on a tiny triangle of land adjoining Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.

To those demands add a requirement that the recital hall seat some 200-but accommodate more intimate gatherings without seeming empty. It also should have the right acoustics for solo guitar, chamber orchestra and percussion ensemble. In addition, the recital hall and rehearsal space must be perfectly insulated acoustically so that sounds from one do not intrude on the other.

A further wrinkle: no car horns, sirens or other noise from busy downtown streets can intrude on the performance or rehearsal space. Finally, line up the new structure with the Eastman Theatre so that stairwells and elevators transition seamlessly between the buildings.

All the demands of building the new Eastman East Wing-equally important but essentially unrelated-made the project a Rubik's Cube for designers, said the architect, Craig Jensen of Chantreuil Jen-sen Stark Architects LLP.

The new wing actually is two acoustically isolated buildings. The lower building nests inside but does not touch the upper one, and the walls of each extend separately down to bedrock. Separated by an air space, the inner wall of the outer building and the outer wall of the inner building also are insulated with sound-absorbing material.

Hatch Recital Hall sits at street level and rises two levels. A rehearsal hall is perched above. Instead of resting on the recital hall's ceiling, the rehearsal hall's floor sits on steel beams that connect to outer walls.

Because the inner and outer portions of the addition had to be built at the same time, the rehearsal hall's concrete floor was poured not from above but from below, Jensen said. In fact, it was not poured but shot from a specialized concrete gun that propelled wet concrete with a blast of compressed air.

Tuning the interior acoustics of Hatch Recital Hall was the job of acoustician Christopher Blair, a partner of Akoustiks in Norwalk, Conn.

Acoustical engineering is more of a science than it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, when concert hall designers had almost no idea how good a space would sound until the first notes were played. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts opened Avery Fisher Hall in New York City in 1962 with some fanfare. But many judged the space to be an acoustic dud. It eventually was reworked in a project that demolished and rebuilt the structure's entire interior.

In acoustics, Blair said, "science can get you most of the way there, but the final arbiter will be the ear."

Blair met with musicians who would be performing in the hall, but he found verbal descriptions go only so far. One ensemble, for example, asked that the room have a "buttery" sound.

"I have my own sense of what that means in terms of texture," Blair said, "but will really not know if my concept matches theirs until I am in the room with them for final tuning."

To accommodate varying demands, Blair made the room's acoustics adjustable. Its interior walls hide panels of a nubby, sound-absorbing acoustical cloth that can be raised or lowered in varying combinations as needed.

Such tinkering is typical of this type of project. Before work started, Jensen said, a year and a half of negotiations took place among his firm, Eastman School of Music officials and musicians. Once it was under way, problems were solved on the fly.

How well it turned out will become clear when the first notes in the new hall are played next week.

12/3/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail

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