Music school with all the mod cons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 2004, 12:00am

Whenever James Wong enters a room at the International Christian Quality Music School, in Diamond Hill, he claps his hands. As acoustic consultant, he's testing the complex's sound quality.

'Just hear the reverberation,' says Wong, after his loud clap resounds in the small design and technology workshop. 'This hall only measures 22 metres by 11 metres, but the acoustics make you feel as if you're in a church.'

The workshop could, indeed, double as a performing venue for choral works, especially the masterpieces composed during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Its ceiling has an undulating surface. 'It scatters the sound and prevents too much echo, while allowing for a long reverberation time,' he says.

The workshop is the second- largest performing venue in the school, after the 782-seat Symphony Hall, which opened last month. The new school - for primary and secondary students - puts strong emphasis on music.

'Music education in Hong Kong starts at the university level,' says principal Chan Wing-sang. 'But talents need to be cultivated from childhood. Our vision is to fill train students from a young age in performance, composition, choral singing and music appreciation.'

All of which comes at a cost. 'The school is private and independent,' says Chan. 'This means the government provides the land and subsidises the $170 million construction. Otherwise, the school is left on its own financially.'

Although the construction budget was tight, architect Joseph Ho says a lot of effort was put into ensuring that the acoustic quality of the two halls and the 40 music practice rooms was as high as possible.

The centerpiece of Wong and Ho's collaboration is the wood-panelled Symphony Hall, with its high ceiling and curved balcony. At 34 metres by 24 metres, it's smaller than many concert halls, but its stage can accommodate a full orchestra of up to 90 musicians plus a full chorus.

'The acoustics of this hall are of top international standard,' Wong says. 'You can hardly find a venue as good as this in Southeast Asia, let alone Hong Kong. Sound from the stage goes to the back and then returns, enveloping the audience.'

Wong happily shows off different acoustic parts of the hall, such as the 40-plus reverberation chambers - which can be opened or closed individually to control the amount of reverberation in the venue - and the reflecting panels that flank the stalls.

'A concert hall is a tool - a musical instrument,' he says. 'It should be adaptable to different types of music. Reverberation time, acoustic reflection and the blending of sound in it should all be adjustable.' For example, he says, when a full orchestra is playing, the acoustics should be more spacious than when there's only a string quartet on stage.

The hall is shielded from outside noise by a double-layered wall, while its air-conditioning (and that of the workshop well) has been designed to be virtually noiseless. Even the floor of the stage is specially designed to minimise vibration.

Most of Wong's work is dealing with environmental noise control, but he says concert hall design is his true passion. The school project has been a rare and treasured opportunity. And he's happy with the result. The construction cost of a typical public concert hall is at least $800 million, Wong says - almost five times that of the whole school. But despite the tight budget, Wong is confident the acoustic design of the Symphony Hall will compare favourably with the best musical venues in the world.

And Chan is certainly happy about the outcome, and says the school has invited several eminent local musicians, including pianist Nancy Loo, to be resident performers. An inauguration concert will be held in March in the Symphony Hall.