By Eric Dundon
When Powell Hall opened in 1968, critics praised the acoustical quality of the theater-turned-concert hall, comparing it the famed Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Since that inaugural concert 54 years ago, critics, artists, and audiences have commented on Powell Hall’s acoustics, noting that the sound of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is naturally amplified and is consistently warm across the venue.
“Powell Hall has great acoustics because it’s a rare place where the amount of resonance is ideal,” said Music Director Stéphane Denève, who fell in love with the sound of the hall when he first visited the SLSO in 2003. “When we are on stage, I am always amazed that it’s never too resonant or too dry. It has the right warmth for the sound.”
Over the years, conductors have utilized Powell Hall’s architecture in unique ways to amplify, enhance, and augment the sound—implementing creative ideas to produce thrilling musical moments. The hall’s design itself, Stéphane says, is almost mystical.
“The more you go up into the hall, the better the sound. I’ve listened to the hall from the very top, and it’s spectacular,” he said. “It feels like you are in a Greek amphitheater, like there is something mysterious carrying the sound so beautifully to so far away.”
Over the years, many conductors have utilized Powell Hall in unconventional ways.
Conductors have deployed the St. Louis Symphony Chorus in different ways to achieve various effects. In October 2015 performances of selections from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, conductor Markus Stenz, a noted Wagner interpreter, placed chorus members away from their normal location behind the orchestra.
Instead, he placed them off-stage and throughout the balconies, including at the very top of the auditorium. The women singing from the back of the auditorium created a transcendental sound, the sound of souls ascending to heaven.
Similarly, former Music Director David Robertson placed the Chorus at the back of the auditorium during the church scene of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. In doing so, the audience effectively became part of the village congregation, with music ringing from all sides.
The Grand Tier level of the Wightman Grand Foyer—or the third level—has lovingly been dubbed the “Neptune Balcony” by members of the Chorus. Performances of Gustav Holst’s The Planets feature a soprano/alto chorus in the seventh and final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.” The singers are placed facing away from auditorium, their voices echoing throughout the cavernous foyer and back into the auditorium through open doors. The result is a celestial, distant sound, simultaneously heavenly and eerie.
Use of Powell Hall’s architecture isn’t, however, limited to the chorus.
The use of off-stage musicians creates a sense of distance, both in place and time. Stéphane placed musicians in foyer during performances of Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony to mimic the distant hunting horns sound, music reverberating throughout the Grand Foyer similarly to horn calls sounding throughout mountainsides and valleys. In Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, brass players located off stage conjured the ancient Roman legions, a ghostly effect.
Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question utilizes an off-stage trumpet, placed at times in the backstage area, but other times placed in a distant corner inside the auditorium. Former Principal Trumpet Susan Slaughter recalled having to play the piece slightly sharp to stay in tune, combating the Doppler effect the resulted from her far-flung performance position.
The late Richard Hickox conducted William Walton Belshazzar’s Feast in March 2004 with off stage brass bands positioned in the balconies—apparently brass players love when this piece is programmed because it requires an army of players.
And conductor Hannu Lintu, in September 2018, placed bells as far as away as the Green Room backstage in performances of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, providing a peal that rang distant.
For many of these off-stage performances, players watch the conductor through a closed-feed video routed to monitors backstage or in balconies outside the auditorium.
In the upcoming renovation and expansion of Powell Hall, the SLSO and acoustics firm Kirkegaard will work to protect the already superb sound of the auditorium. Measures will be taken to further isolate noise from the auditorium, increasing the SLSO’s ability to record for commercial release, and enhancing the sound that has made Powell Hall one of the finest halls in the country.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Director.