Expert action at last to tackle concert hall sound barriers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2011, 12:00am

A major study of the sound quality in the Cultural Centre concert hall will start tomorrow after two decades of controversy and debate among critics and musicians.

But don't hold your breath waiting to hear any improvement in the sound.

Any changes will have to wait until the West Kowloon Cultural District and its concert hall are up and running, which will be years away.

A team of international acousticians will collect data for nine days in the 2,019-seat oval-shaped hall, as well as opinions from musicians and critics. A report, including short-term and mid-term recommendations, is expected to be ready 14 weeks later.

But it will take a while to implement the measures.

'The Cultural Centre is heavily booked in the next 12 months and beyond and it's impossible for us to close it for renovation. That will have to wait until the opening of the West Kowloon concert hall,' said Linus Fung Wai-fan, chief manager of urban cultural services at the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

Fung said at least three experts from Ove Arup & Partners Hong Kong would set up devices to collect data during concerts by the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.

'We are aware of the acoustics issue and have sought expert consultation on a regular basis,' Fung said.

The department decided early last year to look into the matter seriously, and worked with the Architectural Services Department to tender the project.

'We chose Arup for its international standing and recognition in concert hall acoustics, and their fee is within our budget,' she said.

The Arup team comprises Rob Harris, Andrew Nicol and Simon Tsoi, whose projects include the Sydney Opera House, London's Royal Opera House, Singapore's Victoria Hall, Greek National Opera and the Seoul Performing Arts Centre.

Aside from technical data, the team will meet members of the Philharmonic and Hong Kong Chinese orchestras, as well as music industry representatives and critics.

The concert hall's acoustics have haunted performers.

'We were rehearsing the Bach concerto for four pianos to open the hall in 1989. Every time I played a note, it would be repeated. That was awful,' said pianist Nancy Loo, of the Philharmonic.

Savio Lau Chi-kong, managing editor of Hi Fi Review magazine who has been invited to meet the experts, was also critical.

'Consistency of sound is probably the biggest failure of the hall,' Lau said. 'You get different sounds from different seats, and the ironic thing is, the most expensive seats in the stalls get very poor sound. Those under the balcony in the rear are the worst.

'The City Hall Concert Hall, by contrast, has more consistent and predictable sound. One can be fairly sure what to expect from the stage.'

Clive Greensmith, cellist with the world-acclaimed Tokyo String Quartet, agreed. 'I could hardly hear myself or my colleagues during our performance at the Cultural Centre. But it all became clearly audible at the City Hall,' he said.

Klaus Heymann, head of the Naxos classical music label, has recorded at most halls in Hong Kong, but never at the Cultural Centre concert hall. 'The acoustics are terrible and it is impossible for recording,' he said.

John Harding, concertmaster of the Philharmonic, agrees. 'It is a very difficult stage to hear what's going on just across [other orchestra sections].' But he said the actual sound quality on stage was not bad and gave the hall a rating of 5.5 out of 10, whereas the acoustics at the Sydney Opera House, where he performed as the leader of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, got only 3.

Yip Wing-sie, music director of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, said there was a difference between what she heard on stage and what was heard in the audience.

'When I conduct the orchestra on the podium, the sound is in fact quite good. But when I hear it in the audience, the sound always seems like it's coming from a far distance,' she said.

'There is also the problem of reverberation, which is especially prominent with the percussion section, such as the snare drums, which often sound with more than one echo.'

Yim Hok-man, principal percussionist with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, said the problem was even more serious with traditional Chinese instruments.

'I can't hear the huqin strings at the front at all, which sound remote from the percussion. The oval-shape stage opens up too widely and the sound gets scattered,' he said.

Aik Yew-goh, chief recording engineer of Hugo Productions, who has also been invited to meet the experts, said the hall produced an uneven reproduction of sound and clarity, which was linked to the balcony.

'The balcony blocks the sound from the stage. Except for devising some reflective soundboards around the stage, there is very little you can do about it structurally unless you demolish the balcony.'

But Aik said that to be fair, the hall would sound very good under world-class orchestras, which were capable of producing a sumptuous sound that could overcome the shortcomings of the hall's acoustics.