Don't Touch the Stradivarius

Like playing an instrument, one needs to know how to play a concert hall - how to navigate the music through its space, which can make the sounds louder or softer, like a big resonance box.

Like playing an instrument, one needs to know how to play a concert hall - how to navigate the music through its space, which can make the sounds louder or softer, like a big resonance box.

It is true that each performer and instrument has its own private resonance box. However, from the moment the sounds are created until they are absorbed in the ears of the listeners, they have a long way to go: Will the sounds be closed or resonate? Will they be swallowed up or ricochet off the walls? The concert hall and its musical control determine this. And the concert hall is treacherous. The number of listeners, and even the type of clothes they wear, can change the tonal picture. Every evening, the conductor and performers must tune it, and themselves, anew.

In Israel, there is just one premier instrument like this, almost a Stradivarius of concert halls, which is comfortable to control and fun to play and listen in - the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv. There is now a threat to ruin it.

As Esther Zandberg revealed here, the complaints about the inferior tonal quality in the Mann Auditorium - "poor acoustics" as some claim - are a new phenomenon. Since it was built about 50 years ago, the auditorium has only received compliments in this area. It is true that there are several elite concert halls in the world that arouse envy: In the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, for example, the music sounds as if it is bursting out from the listener's head; in Berlin's Philharmonie, it is enough to hear the hum of the audience to become intoxicated by the beauty of the sound.

If the Tel Aviv municipality was to build a concert hall like one of these, it would be received with great applause. But the passion for turning the Mann Auditorium into something that it is not, and thus endangering its acoustic conditions, which are excellent in themselves, is frightening and provincial.

Judging by the energy with which Zubin Mehta and the captains of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra are rolling up their sleeves and hurrying to dispatch bulldozers against the precious jewel entrusted in their hands, one would think they have already fulfilled all of their obligations. For example, to instill a true, original musical culture here beyond the La Traviata festivals, or to cultivate homegrown Israeli conductors, composers and soloists and make a social impact, thus justifying the word "Israeli" in the orchestra's name.

Judging by the hand that is longing to repair the "crooked" floor of the auditorium, which according to Mehta is harming the sound of the orchestra, one would think he has already done everything to improve their performance, to cure the orchestra of its instability and sloppy renditions when it plays under conductors who are not outstanding.

What exactly is defective in the Mann Auditorium's sound? What would improve if they destroy the auditorium and rebuild it in a different way? No one can answer this.

In an apologetic article in Haaretz on July 7, aimed at softening the architectural community's shock after hearing about the project, Tel Aviv's city engineer, Danny Kaiser, could only write: "Even on the day it was inaugurated, the hall had a dry sound and required aggressive playing by the orchestra for it to be heard properly in the huge expanse."

But anyone who has heard how the sounds of the London Philharmonic Orchestra quietly fill this auditorium, how an infinite network of precision is unfurled in the recitals of Ivo Pogorelich and Murray Perahia, and how the sweetness of Perlman's Stradivarius caresses the ear knows how far this is from the truth.

Someone who cannot identify the auditorium's defects, if they indeed exist, surely cannot know how to correct them. "There are alchemic, inexplicable elements in acoustics," Kaiser explained. Alchemy means something unscientific, practiced by dreamers who fantasize about getting rich quick. This is not what the public needs. Instead, the public needs an unequivocal explanation that will clarify exactly what is wrong with the acoustics of the Mann Auditorium and how they are planning to fix it. The alchemists should waste the tens of millions of dollars somewhere else, and the city should mobilize to rescue its deteriorating musical culture instead of this delusional project.