Symphony for Saw and Specialist

"Terrible acoustics!" - with this slogan on their lips and splashed across their banners, the zealots of renovation at the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality are sharpening their weapons as they attempt to launch an attack on the Mann Auditorium (Heichal Hatarbut). They will have to leave the bulldozers and the pneumatic drills at home, however: Heavy weapons will not be deployed in this battle because the plan to change the building drastically will not be implemented. Public pressure has wiped that idea off the agenda and the precious modernist building has been saved.

Another plan that was suggested - involving leaving the building's external shell as is, but changing the interior totally and making the hall rectangular instead of preserving its original fan-shaped form - has also been scuttled: A coalition of architects, lawyers, intellectuals and public figures overcame the forces that promoted it.

At present, the case of the Mann Auditorium is still not yet closed. Because of its "terrible acoustics," a third alternative has now been suggested that includes preservation of the fan shape but still including other far-reaching changes in the structure. Maybe bulldozers and pneumatic drills won't be brought in, but there will certainly be heavy sledgehammers - along with lots of cement and building materials. The danger has not passed.

As far back as the summer of 2000, the head of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra's employees' committee, Zeev Dorman, expressed the musicians' desire for an improvement in the hall, because of its acoustics.

"On our concert tours abroad we play in new halls with extraordinary acoustics and the time has come to adapt our own hall to modern demands," Dorman told Haaretz at that time. "Since the Mann Auditorium was built there have been many changes in the way people want to hear music, and we must provide our audience with the very best."

Asked how people like to listen to music today, Dorman replied: "In a way that the sound remains in the air for a longer time."

According to him, the orchestra hired two renowned experts who examined the building and provided identical answers when questioned about the reasons for the poor acoustics and how to improve them: "The volume of space above the stage should be increased by raising the ceiling, and the auditorium should be paneled with materials that reflect sound. These changes will not only bring more resonance, but also an improvement of the sound," he explained.

Nine years ago, the budget for renovations stood at $10 million, which were also supposed to have sufficed for backstage improvements, and for construction of dressing rooms for the musicians as well as a new rehearsal hall beneath the adjacent Gan Yaakov park.

"In principle we have decided it is not right to touch the structure, either inside or outside, because it is beautiful and is a part of the city's cultural tradition and should not be damaged," added Dorman. "Reducing the size of the hall and the number of seats in it could have helped the acoustics very much, but we won't do that."

The years have passed and the rather minimalist scheme for renovation that Dorman described ballooned into a more serious plan, with enormous budgets: His declaration that the structure should not be touched was dashed by a plan that would have damaged it irrevocably. As noted, that idea was struck off the list, but the rationale of "terrible acoustics" remains and constitutes the basis for the potential disfigurement of the hall.

In discussions of the acoustics at Mann Auditorium the issue of the resonance and duration of the sound keeps coming up. Anyone who has ever sung in the bathtub or shower is undoubtedly familiar with sweet the sound that can be produced there, precisely because of prolonged reverberations. Indeed, building materials in bathrooms - such as the tiles and the tub, the mirrors and the special paint used on the walls - are resistant not only to water, but also to sound. Sound hits them and bounces from wall to wall; it is not absorbed or swallowed up, but rather continues to reverberate and be amplified as it collides with other sound; indeed, this physical acoustic phenomenon produces a richer sound.

Anyone who has heard concerts in large churches is familiar with the rich sound that reverberates there - sometimes even too rich, and therefore muddy and unclear: In professional jargon this situation is even defined dubbed "bathroom acoustics." Prolonging the duration of sound in the Mann Auditorium from 1.5 seconds to 2.5 seconds has already become a mantra in the debate over the need for renovations, but it is only one of many aspects of acoustics. No one, however, is relating properly to all of them in the context of this particular hall.

Maybe there isn't a need for such drastic measures to be taken? For example, there is the issue of loudness: By its nature, a sound is loudest where it originates and becomes softer as the the waves move farther away from their source. The structure of the concert hall has to help overcome this phenomenon. At the Mann Auditorium, anyone who has ever sat in the last row, very far away from the stage, knows that there is no decrease in the volume of the sound and there is no need to strain to hear the music.

Some halls suffer from the tendency of sound to become distorted because certain frequencies are swallowed up, to the point where it becomes difficult to identify whether the instrument that produced it is a violin or a flute, an oboe or a clarinet. Furthermore, there are halls in which the sound seems to be "dead" - as though there were no connection between the music that is heard and its origin on the stage. Instead, three seems to be an imaginary curtain of cotton separating the stage from the seats, because of the disjuncture between the sound emanating directly from the orchestra and the sound that bounces back from the walls and the ceilings. At the Mann Auditorium, however, there are no problems of this sort at all, nor does it suffer from accompanying echoes; only a few "pockets" have been identified in which one doesn't hear well. The auditorium is also insulated from external noise - another acoustic problem that affects many other halls.

Apparently because of these characteristics, and because both large orchestral concerts and solo recitals can be heard well there, Mann Auditorium has been ranked in a decent place, in the middle of the list of the 100 best concert halls in the world. It is doubtful that it is worth endangering all this to try - with no guarantee of complete success - to improve only one aspect of a complex of group of acoustic characteristics by means of a drastic renovation.

Philharmonic Orchestra musical director Zubin Mehta's involvement in the renovation initiative and the advocacy role he has chosen to take are indicative of the distress the orchestra is experiencing. In these difficult times when all the symphonic ensembles in the world are fighting for their existence, a new home might have given Israel's premier orchestra an extra push: It might have made many people curious, drawn them to concerts and awakened their dormant enthusiasm for musical performances.

But it appears that the chronology has been switched here: In order to create a real buzz, something first has to change with respect to the contents, the substance, inside this "container" called the Mann Auditorium. And this is the orchestra itself. The hall is not the problem.

Mehta's mission should be to make the orchestra more relevant - to transform it so that it assumes its potential role as a leading cultural entity. His aim should be to encourage local talents in performance and composition, to present them as the orchestra's real heroes and through them to make a mark on society, and to transform the orchestra into a symbol of local patriotism and to use it to attract the best musicians from around the country - in the knowledge that it is possible to play with the orchestra, even as soloists. Mehta should be striving to get the orchestra in the headlines, and to restore the pride felt in it during the early days of the state when the Philharmonic was an Israeli cultural ambassador and the sole internationally active artistic body here.

Only if all this happens, as happened in Birmingham in England, will the demand for a new hall come from below, from the audience, which will feel that its orchestra deserves more. In the meantime, a face-lift should be given to the neglected auditorium, where wood paneling is peeling from the walls, the seats squeak, the musicians are crammed into small and outdated dressing rooms, and concert-goers encounter unpleasantness at the buffet and in the restrooms, and latecomers must crowd into the crumbling balcony.

The main work needs to be done within the orchestra itself and if its leaders do not know how to do this, perhaps they should hire specialists to consult: Indeed, if they can hire acoustic experts, there is no shame in retaining other consultants.