At the Drop of a Pin

The Philharmonic wants to rule over the definition of culture in their auditorium, after they let it deteriorate for many years. I'm afraid they are out of their depth, or rather sadly out of tune.

The Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, home of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, is to be renovated and refurbished. How it was to be done was decided behind closed doors, between the orchestra and the municipality functionaries.

Granted, open public debate does not guarantee better results than projects implemented by a small group of people with vested and invested interests. However, it is better to make things public, especially if a lot of public money is involved (contributions are always promised, seldom delivered in full), even if for the benefit that when it all comes out in the open (this time thanks to Esther Zandberg of Haaretz), the debate will be about facts - and not their shady interpretations.

It is a tangled architectonic, cultural and musical issue. As architecture, it seems the orchestra, their donors and the municipality prefer a building that looks more "dramatic" than the Mann Auditorium, reflecting simplicity and some measure of austerity. The outer shape of the auditorium became one of the symbols of Tel Aviv. The building was declared worthy of preservation by the Tel Aviv municipality as a sort of monument. If the orchestra and municipality need and want a different building, let them build it, in another place.

The building was devised at the end of the `50s by Zeev and Yaakov Rechter, according to the architectonic and cultural standards in Israel and the world, and it is still worthy of all the accolades it received. It is a landmark. But the hall itself was devised according to a slightly different agenda: The aim was to have a concert hall for the Philharmonic, which would prevent effectively staging operas, thus barring the way of the old Israeli Opera. Very quickly the Philharmonic discovered that they had cut their stage to spite their own musical aspirations. At the same time, pop and rock artists and bands were very eager to "make it" in the Mann Auditorium, which is called The Shrine of Culture (Heichal HaTarbut) in Hebrew. That led to a series of quick fixes done badly, sometimes barbarically, a patch upon a patch.

The rest was a road down the cultural slope. Any impresario or other moneyed individual or organization could - and did - hire the hall with many seats for a fixed sum of shekels, be it for a political convention or a series of shows for children. That led to more hasty improvised alterations, and the hall deteriorated rapidly. On top of that, the whole public area - toilets, food and beverage stands, stairs, rails - was neglected and became decidedly shabby. The hall's management was indiscriminate in hiring the place out, and the orchestra did not help much by marketing its concerts under labels like "Mozart Achla," to make it sound hip and Mediterranean. The auditorium lost its cultural glamour mainly due to the way it was treated by its owners and dwellers.

The proposed magical solution to the problems is presented as a grave matter of culture. The auditorium's fan shape, which became a cultural emblem in itself, is to be replaced by a thrust stage, putting seats around the stage, and incorporating on stage the equipment needed for performances and concerts. This will mean less seats for performances on stage, and it will also mean raising the roof, a part of the outer proportion of the building. They all talk about a "shoe box" shaped auditorium, baroque style, to fit the prevalent "fashion."

Did I hear the word culture? If not, it was probably because of the acoustics. The doomsday weapon of the renovators is the need for more "fashionable" acoustics. When the auditorium was built, the acoustic scheme was devised by the world authority at the time, the American Leo Beranek. It was a failure. A series of improvements led to a major overall under the auspices of an Israeli world authority, Abraham Meltzer, at the beginning of the `70s. Materials were changed, and since then making it better has been a constant work in progress.

Acoustics is a science, but, alas, not an exact science. The expert with the ears can program his computer to give him the desired reverberation result according to the materials used, the shape of the space, even the estimated input of audience presence. Come opening night it never sounds as it should have.

Oddly enough, there were conductors and orchestras for whom the acoustics of the Mann Auditorium were never an insurmountable problem. There is a practice during rehearsals when the maestro asks an assistant to take over, and wonders through the hall, planning the best way to lead the sections to achieve the best musical effect in the given - optimal they should be - acoustic conditions. There is a lot to be done on the acoustic front in the fan. A shoe box shape does not guarantee a solution. If anything, it augurs different problems to be solved.

Arthur Marx tells in his autobiographical book about a family trip. The guide wanted to impress the tourists with the marvelous acoustics of a church. He asked them to hold their breath and said, "Now you will hear a pin drop." After a short silence, Groucho said from the back row: "Excuse me, but I did not hear the pin drop. Could you drop it again, please?" He went through the routine, dead serious, for an hour, leaving his family deeply embarrassed. He was nonplussed himself.

It is a fit story to prick the balloon of acoustics that is flown in our faces in this seemingly cultural debate. It is all about the Israel Philharmonic wanting to rule over the definition of culture in their auditorium, after they let it deteriorate for many years. I'm afraid they are out of their depth, or rather sadly out of tune.