Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

We Need This Man

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

We Need This Man

Article excerpt

Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

The Arts

London's concert halls are an acoustical disgrace.

So why have they shut out the world's greatest sound doctor?

Belle & Sebastian break pop's rules. IF THERE is one thing that unites jetlagged conductors across the datelines it is the faith that there is one man on earth who can give them the perfect sound. His name is Russell Johnson and, over three decades, he has created a run of stunning halls from Seoul to So Paulo, Dallas to Dijon.

The little gem that Johnson designed for the Finnish boondocks town of Lahti has put its modest orchestra on the world map. In Lucerne, he fashioned a festival hall whose walls adjust at the flick of a switch to accommodate any range of decibels, from solo flute to Mahler's eighth symphony with 1,024 performers.

In Britain, he broke ground with two good halls in Northampton and Nottingham before presenting, to Simon Rattle's specifications in Birmingham, the finest concert ambience this benighted kingdom has ever experienced. That was in 1991. Since then, Johnson has not won another British contract.

Strange, you'd think, when London holds the triple crown as acoustic armpit of the universe.

Odd that a man who knows more about the science of sound than the entire record industry should be shunned by all of our expensively renovating concert halls and opera houses.

Bizarre? If it weren't for fear of offending those lovely blokes and boards who run the Royal Albert Hall, Barbican, South Bank, Royal Opera House and English National Opera, I'd call it a flaming national scandal and demand a public inquiry.

Consider the evidence. London has been an acoustic black hole since the Albert Hall opened in 1871, with an echo so cavernous that you could hear a symphony twice. They stuffed the dome with cotton wool and hung umbrellas from the rafters, to no great avail.

The RAH is undergoing a [pound]70 million refit. The acoustics are being treated by Peutz, a Dutch firm.

Russell Johnson was not, for some reason, contacted.

The Royal Festival Hall was inaugurated in 1951 to oohs and aahs for every beautiful aspect except its sound, which was dull and dry.

A network of 168 microphones was secretly implanted in the walls to boost the resonance. Those mikes have since worn out and the sound is deader than ever. The RFH is facing a [pound]54 million facelift. Various acousticians have been consulted and Larry Kierkegaard of Chicago was commissioned to build a [pound]30,000 scale model. Russell Johnson was asked for an opinion back in 1994; he has not had so much as a Christmas card from the South Bank since.

The Barbican, now in its 21st year, opened as Europe's greatest acoustic disaster. Traffic and toilet noises invaded the concert hall and musicians could not hear themselves play. …

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