"We did this for ourselves,” says the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s legendary music director for life, Zubin Mehta, sitting on the stage of the newly renovated concert hall of the IPO. “But we [also] did it for the public. They need to hear the orchestra at its best.” At the end of May, the 114-strong orchestra moved back to its home — once the Mann Auditorium, now the Charles Bronfman, but known far and wide as a landmark building of Tel Aviv. This followed more than 20 months of the orchestral equivalent of sleeping on floors. The IPO played in tents (to mark its 75th anniversary), it toured, it squatted in temporary accommodation.
The renovation was precipitated by a variety of problems associated with the ageing Mann Auditorium. Opened in 1957, it had failed to meet various modern-day standards, not least those demanded of it by the fire brigade. Its backstage facilities for the musicians were poor, not to say primitive. One doleful IPO musician, returning to Tel Aviv after a successful tour, declared: “Now we are back to our misery.” At one point, the hall was under threat of closure.
But the principal problem was the acoustics, one recognised more than 10 years ago by Mehta and the subject of agonised discussion by the orchestra, its administrators and the Tel Aviv municipality. The difficulty, architect Ofer Kolker explains, is that the auditorium is a listed heritage building, so any renovation had to both satisfy preservation campaigners and provide elegant technical solutions. “The basic problem was that the hall was much too big. It held seats for nearly 3,000 and we reduced it to 2,500. But that still left us with the problem of how to improve acoustics for such a large hall.” Most modern concert venues have a capacity of around 1,500.
Enter the delightfully named Yasuhisa Toyota, who Kolker hails as “the best acoustician in the world”. The Japanese — who has worked on the new Frank Gehry-designed Disney concert hall in Los Angeles — became the vital third arm of the project.
“A hall is also a musical instrument,” Kolker says. “My brother [and partner in the practice, Amir] describes getting the acoustics right as similar to shooting a firework. We needed to work out how to improve the sound and reverberations so that when a note was played in the hall, it could be heard everywhere.”
The auditorium’s false ceiling was knocked down, adding a third more volume — “more volume means more reverberation”. Toyota advised a replacement for the ceiling and this has now been built in an extraordinary web mesh which hangs over the stage and the audience. You can only really see that it is mesh if in the nosebleed seats on the upper levels. Further down it looks as though there are aluminium diamonds above the orchestra. But the mesh, and the holes in it, allows the sound to shimmer through the hall in an unprecedented way. Horn player Yoel Abadi, an IPO board member, notices “a big difference. There is much more clarity of sound and the new acoustics make it possible to pick out individual instruments in a way that really wasn’t possible before. The hall sounds more resonant, there is more echo time. For us it is really wonderful.”
There remains a lot of work to be done, not least backstage, where players are still sharing changing room space with their instruments. But Abadi is in no doubt that moving back to a work in progress was the right decision. “We appreciate the fact that we can return to our regular home.”
Another of the improvements is an entire new floor underneath the concert hall, which has a two-fold purpose. Its 90 pillars will protect the building against regional earthquakes — something now mandatory in new building in Israel — and the planners have created a dedicated underground music centre, serving as a rehearsal area, workshop arena, chamber music space, and even a venue for rock musicians. A further addition is the installation of the largest freight elevator in Israel, making the shifting of Steinway pianos and massive harps a relative breeze.
To celebrate its return to the hall, the IPO held a series of gala concerts with a glittery sprinkling of starry musicians, headed by violinist Itzhak Perlman, violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman, and Zukerman’s wife, the cellist Amanda Forsyth.
For the avuncular Perlman, who played on the opening night with Mehta and the IPO in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony — chosen to highlight the acoustic glory of the refit — there is “a definite improvement”. Perlman sees the hall as another musical instrument: “You have to let the hall do more of your job.” He plays a Stradivarius that once belonged to Yehudi Menuhin, affectionately referring to it as “Sir Strad” in a mock-British accent. Scarily, when he is not playing, he sometimes sits with his hands in his lap, the priceless instrument lodged between his shoulder and his chin, as though in cruise control on a car. He laughs when asked about this. “You could only do that when you feel that the violin is part of you. If you didn’t have that feeling, yes, you might drop it.”
Perlman’s second night appearance was a recital which included a Beethoven sonata, Cesar Franck’s violin sonata, and the hair-raising Giuseppe Tartini violin sonata, known as The Devil’s Trill, a spectacular, showy piece which brought the audience to its feet.
But for a more mundane, yet definitely more 2013 take on whether the new acoustics make a difference, we must, regrettably, turn to the Israeli love affair with the mobile phone. Perlman had just begun the first passage of the Franck sonata when a woman’s phone rang. And rang and rang. Yes, it could be heard all over the auditorium. A somewhat exasperated Perlman stopped playing while the hapless owner tried, unsuccessfully, to turn the thing off. Eventually its battery had to be removed as the woman looked ready to pass out from mortification. It’s not quite what the IPO intended with its £30 million project, but it was proof positive that the money had been well spent.