Mozart’s name is forever linked to Salzburg and Vienna. Frederic Chopin is Warsaw incarnate. Wagner conjures Leipzig as Pytor Tchaikovsky does Moscow.
Jean Sibelius, Finland’s national composer, however, was not a Helsinki homeboy.
Instead, the monument to his symphonic genius lies just outside the Finnish capital, in Lahti, the composer’s adopted hometown. Sibelius Hall - the Sibeliustalo, in the language of the composer - is about as far from Helsinki to Lahti as from Washington to Wolftrap, or Manhattan to Westbury. But it’s worth the trip. The design is a bridge between old and new: A 1907 red-bricked former sawmill and wood pulp factory, renovated as a restaurant and event center, is joined to a 1,250-seat smoked-glass-sided shoe-box-style main concert hall, built in 2000, by a five-story atrium lobby with floating wood staircases to the mezzanines. A meeting hall brings the total square footage to about 35,000 square feet, bordered by a large patio deck that fronts the placid waters of Lake Vesijv§rvi.
The antique brick and soaring laminated timber pylons are meant to be organic, like the music of the composer himself, whose nearby birthplace and museum are national monuments. Lahti is known as “the city of carpenters,” and the region’s famed woodworking industry got its start there from the log-floating terminus at the nearby Vesijv§rvi Harbor. Local birch, spruce, pine, and fir were used in the concert hall, and more exotic wood varieties such as aspen and alder were used in the trim and furnishings.
Still, the measure to fund the construction of Sibeliustalo, the intended home for the celebrated Lahti Symphony Orchestra, to the tune of a relatively affordable $21 million, was passed by only a single vote in the city council. The Finns have had spotty success with acoustics in their concert halls in the past, most notably Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, which required extensive acoustic refitting several years ago.
But the pragmatic Sibelius would have approved of what it is a unique, technology-forward acoustic design, created by Russell Johnson of New York-based Artec Consultants.
Three key elements define the hall’s sound:
- Wood panels.
- Acoustical panels.
The 65-foot-long sides are lined with cherry wood panels, approximately 4 by 6 feet each, which can be opened, like vents, to varying degrees to configure the hall’s acoustics for various levels of musical dynamics: Lighter fare benefits from more reverberant surfaces with the doors opened slightly; bombastic symphonic music is tamed by opening the panels wider. Various configurations can be stored in a central control computer, says Jukka Kaunisto, head of technical services at Sibeliustalo. “Some of the symphonic settings were arrived at working with Artec, and pop music concerts we learn as we go along,” he says.
The second acoustical innovation is the reverberant chambers created by the space between the reverse side of the panels and the inside of the exterior structural walls of the hall. The chambers, shaped like isosceles triangles with the floor as the shortest side and defined by the same sort of indigenous blond timber used in much of the rest of the construction, have movable curtains, allowing for adjustable sound deadening. The exterior walls themselves are innovative: They are vertically layered using wood on the outside, followed inward by a half-inch-thick layer of prefabricated sand-filled panels, each measuring 29.5 by 6 feet and weighing about 11,000 pounds; then more wood; then sound-absorptive mineral wool; then a layer of plywood. The sand-filled inclined wood walls provide a sound insulating value of 63 dB, superior to that of an 8-inch-thick concrete wall. The glass curtain wall that sheaths the outside of the hall provides a further 35 dB.
The interior acoustical design creates the equivalent of a massive mechanical auxiliary send on a mixing console: Precise amounts of sound energy from the hall can be leaked into the chambers and returned as reverberant sound or deadened, depending upon the amount of curtain exposed in the chambers, with measured amounts of sound retained in the hall to be reflected by the wood panels.
“The biggest challenges in the hall were getting equipment that would operate silently, because we have such an incredible noise floor and have very precise deciBel measurements,” says Kaunisto. “We also had to learn to mix the room properly for various types and dynamic levels of music.” But the challenges are worth it, he adds, noting that it’s rare to be able to mix any performance with virtually no outboard processing whatsoever. The relatively Spartan FOH position outboard rack, containing TC Electronic M1 and Yamaha SPX 990 processors, attests to that.
The third acoustical design component is equally dramatic and mechanized. Three acoustical canopies or “clouds” are suspended above the stage area, made from steel-framed laminated plywood, and can be raised and lowered independently of each other within a vertical range of about 25 feet using motors fixed in trusses. The canopies are used to compress and orient sonic energy from the stage. More dynamic events, including rock concerts, see the clouds fully raised; quieter performances have the panels closer to the stage. Additionally, each canopy has lighting elements in it - 260 100-watt hi-spots, 30 ETC Source 4 575W units, and a dozen Par 56 300-watt units.
The stage also has its own dramatic part to play: The first three rows of orchestra seats can be removed and a hydraulic scissor lift can raise an additional front apron, extending the conductor’s area.
Russell Johnson, who estimates the cost of the concert hall at about $7 million, says he had several inspirations for his acoustic design, including the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and the Chan Concert Hall at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. But the specific design for the side chambers is a familiar one for him, one he first used 47 years ago at Eisenhower State College in Pennsylvania. The acoustical “clouds” are also a personal favorite tactic, developed by Johnson for use in the Crouse-Hinds Concert Theatre in Syracuse, NY, and later used at Pikes Peak Center in Colorado Springs; the Armenian Concert Theatre in Kitchener, Ontario; Symphony Hall, Birmingham, United Kingdom; and the Concert Hall for the International Music Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland.
The hall’s PA system has a tough act to follow in an acoustical environment like this, but it’s up to the task. There are three main clusters. The center cluster hangs on a motorized pulley and consists of a pair of E-V Xi1183/64 cabinets. Left and right clusters, which are manually movable, have a single E-V Xi1183/64 topped with an E-V Xi 1122/85 and joined by an E-V Xi 1082 and a pair of E-V S40 subs. Front-stage fill is handled by two E-V Xi 1082 cabinets, with eight more used as balcony fill speakers. FOH mixers are a 40-channel Allen & Heath ML 5000 and a 40-channel A&H GL 3300. Monitors are mixed using a 24-channel A&H 2200 and a Yamaha 01V. It’s all powered by 6,500 watts of Crown Macro-Tech amplifiers.
The combination of the Sibelius Hall and the Lahti Symphony, which makes its home there, is serendipitous. The orchestra’s recordings are critically acclaimed, but just as rewarding is the fact that the critics seemed to have noticed the hall as well. As BBC Radio 3 commentator Andrew McGregor expressed in a CD review, “The recording - one of the first from the new Sibelius Hall in Lahti - is outstanding: depth and great detail, with everything emerging from a velvety black background that’s perfect for this dark, spare music.”
Not bad for a bunch of carpenters.