Diana Sofia Zavala, a Young Strings student. Photo credit: Dallas Symphony
The Meyerson was built to last – its acoustics and its modernist style have not aged. But what will the next 25 years hold? As the Meyerson marks its anniversary, KERA’s Art&Seek is exploring the history and future of the building in a series called Secrets of the Meyerson. Today, Jerome Weeks reports the Meyerson’s future is tied to the future of classical music.
Read an expanded version of this piece and see more video predictions in the Five Key Questions chapter of “Secrets of the Meyerson.”
Want to check out music at the Meyerson? Events are going on all week. Here’s a list.
Listen to Quin Mathews’ radio story that aired on KERA FM
Russell Johnson. Photo: “Frozen Music”/KERA
The race to finish the Meyerson was tense, especially for acoustician Russell Johnson. This afternoon, KERA contributor Quin Mathews takes us back as Johnson struggled to hear his handiwork.
Many musicians have praised the acoustics of the Meyerson Symphony Center as among the best in the world. Contributor Quin Mathews remembers the tense days before the hall openening.
In September 1989, acoustician Russell Johnson looked worried. He was trying to hear the acoustics of the new hall he had designed, but the sound of noise was winning out over the sound of silence.
The Meyerson Symphony Center was far different from the Fair Park hall it replaced. Instead of a fan-shaped auditorium seating 34 hundred, Johnson’s design called for two thousand, based on the great old halls of Europe.
“They usually seat anywhere between 1100 and 2200 concertgoers,” said Johnson. “Almost without exception in the mid-section of the room they are parallel and rather narrow. They tend to be rather long and rather high. They almost always are constructed of very heavy masonry, and about 95% of the best sounding rooms have plaster walls and plaster ceilings.”
But there was one thing Johnson did that was different. He made adjustable halls.
“There is really no such animal as excellent acoustics which works for all the symphonic literature,” he said.
So the Meyerson got adjustable reverberation chambers and a giant, moveable 42-ton canopy over the stage to vary the way sound decays. The idea is that what you hear is not coming directly from the stage.
“Very, very little of the sound you hear in the audience is coming to you directly from the stage, perhaps as little as 15 to 20 percent of the sound energy is coming to you directly from the instruments. All the rest is coming from multiple reflections from the walls, the ledges and the ceiling—and the canopy.”
In 2004, three years before Johnson’s death, I asked how he would rank the Meyerson among his halls.
“All these halls turn out somewhat different from each other. It’s inevitable. They all sound different, therefore there’s really no way to compare them or rank order them. Are you pleased? I’m never pleased.”
Dallas audiences next get a chance to hear if it’s magic for them, this Thursday as a part of a “Rush Hour Concert” at 6 p.m.
You can watch a performance of Finale from Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata No. 1 by the Dallas Symphony’s resident organist, Mary Preston at our interactive web site,Secrets of the Meyerson.
The Lay Family organ made its debut in 1992, three years after the Meyerson opened. Camille Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony No. 3 capped the inaugural concert. It’s the rare classical work that almost perfectly marries the organ and the orchestra. And on that night, Dallas heard a new instrument almost perfectly matched to its home.
“The Lay Family Organ at the Meyerson Center is one of the great organs of the world without question, in one of the great halls,” says Michael Barone. He knows. He’s host of the award-winning radio show Pipedreams. “What makes the hall wonderful is that its acoustics are adjustable, and can be made quite extravagant. And when opened up to the full, the resonance chambers really do make quite a splash of sound…”
That resonance thrills audiences and makes the organ sound like it’s been lifted out of a grand European Cathedral, says Dallas Morning News critic Scott Cantrell. “The more reverberation there is the more they like it. So in a solo recital you can open up all those reverb chambers and get this incredible swim of sound there, although it never gets muddy.”
The Dallas Symphony’s organist Mary Preston praises builder, C.B. Fisk, for that accomplishment. “This is a glorious instrument because each of the stops is very pure. Each of the sounds of the ranks of pipes are very pure in and of themselves,” she says. Preston has played with the DSO for 20 years. “Some organs, in order to get a pretty sound, you need to pull out a whole bunch of stops, meaning engage a whole range of pipes. On this instrument it’s not so. This instrument has beautiful sounds each and every one of them.” She adds that purity comes from the pipes. You can see 70 of them in the hall.
Mary Preston has been the Dallas Symphony’s resident organist for the past 20 years. Photo: Dane Walters
The rest, says retired DSO Vice President Mark Melson, are hidden in back, up some skinny steps. “We’re in the organ loft behind the organ consul and the organ pipes. There are over 4000 pipes. They’re crammed into this 6-foot deep space,” he points out. The smallest pipe’s about an inch long. The 32-foot tallest pipe is so big a person can stand up inside it. It can play a note a full octave below anything the orchestra can.
“Even when you don’t quite hear it, there’s just this low rumble that’s not so much a pitch but an experience,” describes Michael Barone. “When the full organ is going, when you pull on the big 32-foot Bombard, it’s not just the sound. It’s the “wow” impact of the sound vibrating your whole body.” Which leaves fans and musicians like Mary Preston with a desire seemingly as big as the instrument. “It would be wonderful if we could play it more,” Preston says.
Dallas Morning News classical music critic Scott Cantrell is a little more emphatic. “People want to hear this instrument. There it is. It’s right at the front of the hall. It’s an enormous presence. People often ask me does it ever get used? And I have to say, well, almost never.”
There was an international organ competition. Launched in the 90s, three were held, then its top champions retired or moved away. An ailing economy helped kill it. But some of that’s about to change. The orchestra plans to program more selections that include the organ. And this coming season, the symphony will re-launch an organ recital series. Jonathan Martin, DSO President and CEO, says it will include three concerts with international soloists. He thinks, “You know, we’ve got this great car in the driveway and we need to take it out and drive it more.”
Barone believes the effort will pay off once people open up to this monster that Mozart called the King of Instruments, and realize the organ, which predates Christianity, isn’t just for church. “It is the most complicated of musical instruments and yet to be able to make it sing, to make it touch your heart, to be able to create emotions with this machine is quite magical.”
I.M. Pei in the Meyerson lobby. Photo: “Frozen Music”/KERA
Listen to Quin Mathews piece that aired on KERA this afternoon.
Watch Frozen Music: The Making of a Concert Hall on KERA TV at 8 tonight. Or check it out in the Archives chapter of Secrets of the Meyerson.
As construction workers raced to finish the Meyerson Symphony Center 25 years ago, Architect I.M. Pei toured the building he designed. He liked what he saw.
“Some people, when they look at the outside, say it looks like a musical instrument. Now I’m very happy about that, you know.”
In this intallment of Secrets of the Meyerson KERA contributor Quin Mathews takes us back to hear from the man whose work created visual music for Dallas.
Standing in the hall amid the construction noise, Pei told Mathews that the Meyerson “stands for something in the city.
“Some people, when they look at the outside, say it looks like a musical instrument. Now I’m very happy about that, you know. At the same time they have to judge this building, is this a building that they can be proud of, that they would like to see as one of their public buildings? So therefore a certain amount of monumentality if you wish, a certain aspect, has to be expressed. I want them to want to come in. And I also want them to be proud, to be able to point to friends and visitors, this is our symphony hall. That’s all.”
At the time Pei was probably the most famous and popular architect in the world. He had originally turned down this project because he had not done a concert hall. Stanley Marcus got him to reconsider.
In 1989 when the hall opened, Pei said it was one of the two or third most important buildings in his career. Fast forward 15 years, in a seminar onstage at the Meyerson, Mathews asked him if it was still true.
“I think I do feel so. I still do. First of all, because, first of all, it’s the only symphony hall I’ve every done. (laughter) And I’m particularly pleased with the workmanship. The workmanship in this hall is really incredible.”
I-M Pei was in his sixties when he started working on the Meyerson Symphony Center. He is now 97.
Ted Strauss, the well-known Dallas banker and philanthropist, died this morning. He was 89.
He was responsible for several Texas businesses and banks over the years. He made a $1 million donation to the AT&T Performing Arts Center in 2004.
He died of natural causes, The Dallas Morning News reports.
“Ted had a deep sense of compassion and service to the community,” Matrice Ellis-Kirk, chair elect of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Board of Directors and a longtime friend of Strauss, said in a statement. “Whether advocating for the arts, serving the homeless or any other number of civic efforts – the Strauss family has truly helped shape the Dallas that we are today.”
Strauss was married to Dallas’ first female mayor, Annette Strauss.
His brother died about six months ago. Robert Strauss was a former chairman of the Democratic Party and an ambassador to the Soviet Union.
For this week’s Art & Seek Spotlight, we’re shopping local and handmade at the M.A.D.E. Pop-Up Bazaar at Rahr & Sons Brewing Company in Fort Worth. Check out jewelry, crafts, and other items handmade by North Texas artists and designers. You’ll also enjoy beer tastings and a performance by Texas musician Zach Coffey.
Visit ArtandSeek.org/Meyerson to raise and lower the Meyerson’s acoustic canopy. Photo: Dane Walters
Listen to the report that aired on KERA FM
Spectacular acoustics. That was the holy grail for the designers of the Meyerson Symphony Center. KERA’s Art & Seek is taking a behind-the-scenes look at the building’s 25-year history in a series called Secrets of the Meyerson. Today, Jerome Weeks reports on KERA FM that setting out to replicate the sound of great concert halls built a century ago was a serious gamble.
Architect I.M. Pei and acoustician Russell Johnson designed the building, and in an unusual move, they were hired as equals. Not surprisingly, they quarreled. But those disagreements were, observers say, a classic case of creative tension.
In the end, they got so much right in the looks and sound of the building, says Nicholas Edward, an acoustics expert who worked with Johnson.
Edward and Johnson had some unconventional ideas about acoustic design, like the reverberation chamber that runs around the top of the Meyerson’s auditorium. Sound floats into the reverb chamber, bounces around, and goes back into the hall, giving it the warmth it’s famous for.
And it was Edwards who designed the auditorium’s shape. The great old halls were built like shoeboxes. The Meyerson is more rounded than that, but it has the same effect. It helps reflect sound from the sides and the back to the listener’s ears.
You can hear the podcast of Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks and music historian Laurie Shulman discussing the Meyerson’s history with Krys Boyd on THINK. And you can raise and lower the Meyerson’s acoustic canopy, open and close the reverberation chamber doors, and watch the Meyerson “dance” in the Sound chapter at Art&Seek’s interactive website, ArtandSeek.org/Meyerson.
When building a concert hall, architects have to consider how their structural choices are going to affect the sound. To mark the 25th anniversary of the Meyerson Symphony Center, Krys Boyd talked today on Think to the author of a book on the Meyerson about how the buildings’ designers factored acoustics into their plans.
Laurie Shulman says that there are three elements that combine to form the sound of a hall. The first is its shape. After studying concert halls around the world, the designers of the Meyerson chose a shoebox configuration.
“It is a common misperception when listening to a symphony orchestra that you are hearing sound coming directly at you from the stage – for example if you are sitting at rear-center orchestra,” she says. “You are actually hearing sound coming at you from the sides, reflected down from the ceiling, reflected up from the floor.”
With the shape locked in, the designers had to decide how big to make the hall. Shulman says that more seats could actually fit in the Meyerson, but that would have been bad for the sound.
The final decision concerns materials. Hard surfaces like wood or marble provide better sound reflection. Carpet tends to deaden sound.
“They thought very carefully about every single material on the seats, on the sides on the ceiling and on the floor, and, of course, on the stage itself,” she says.
All of those tiny decisions, when added together, give the Meyerson what acousticians call “audible tail.”
“That sense of the sound just hovering in the air,” she says. “Not an echo, so much as reverberence.”
That’s the kind of detail that makes a good hall great.
The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center is celebrating its 25th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Art&Seek takes you back stage and behind the scenes at the home of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
On KERA FM today, Jerome Weeks kicks off the series with a look back at the high stakes and decade-long struggle to build the hall.
Listen to the report:
At artandseek.org/meyerson, jump into our interactive web site. Take a video tour of the parts of the building you’ve never seen, learn about the sound, read expanded versions of our radio stories. You can even make the building dance – raise and lower the acoustic canopy, open and close the reverberation chamber doors.
And tune in to Think today at 1 p.m. Krys Boyd interviews Jerome and Laurie Shulman, author of The Meyerson Symphony Center, Building a Dream.