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Seen and Heard: Calderwood Hall

A room that's tuned like a piano

See the related story Seen and Heard: Boston Symphony Hall.

When I was much younger and much smaller, my favorite place to listen to music was under the piano while my father was playing. Beneath the long triangular box, in the shelter of the instrument’s gold metal undercarriage, sound turned physical. It vibrated in my ears and teeth and bones: thundering bass, the mellow notes of those octaves above and below middle C within the range of the voice, sweet softs and terrifying louds. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Britten, Berg: I felt that music.

Calderwood Hall, the magical new concert space that is part of Renzo Piano’s addition to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, comes close to replicating that intimacy. The room, which holds only 300 people, looks like the inside of a piano, with its walls of laser-cut oak, its exposed metal fittings, and its seats upholstered in the red of a piano’s felts. During concerts involving a piano, the Steinway on the floor, its lid removed and its workings exposed, illustrates the resemblance.

It is both elegant and raw. A concrete shell surrounds the wooden hall, much the way the metal casing of a piano supports its strings and soundboard. On the ground floor, two rows of seats surround a floor of unvarnished Alaskan cedar, which rides a foot above the concrete. All that separates the audience from the stage is the darker wood along the perimeter, where the chairs are placed.

Three balconies rise on all four sides of the hall; each holds a single row of seats. In front of the seats glass panels tilt slightly outward to baffle sound, and above them floats a thin wooden railing. Depending on where you sit, you can look down on the hands of a pianist, watch a bow cross a violin’s strings, read a flutist’s score. And every member of the audience can see almost everybody else.

Courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Click thumbnail to see image enlarged.

Renzo Piano came up with this design after the museum’s director, Anne Hawley, and its music director, Scott Nickrenz, had rejected three earlier, more conventional plans. Hawley gives Piano great credit for “working with the messy process” at the Gardner. Normally, in a project such as this, the architect communicates with one person. But Hawley asked that her staff and some trustees be involved firsthand in the decision-making process. “We rejected plans,” she says, “but we never changed what he designed after we accepted one.” They never tinkered; they never diluted.

At Nickrenz’s urging, Piano worked with Yasuhisa Toyota, who had designed the acoustics for Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and the New World Center in Miami. Nickrenz wanted the hall to function like an 18th-century horseshoe-shaped theater, which, he says, allows the audience “to share in the performance.” And he didn’t want a stage.

In the beginning of the design process, Piano and Toyota were not entirely conscious of the way the hall echoed the Venetian arcaded courtyard at the heart of the Gardner. “It’s never clear in the beginning; in the beginning, it was more about sound,” Piano told me. They began to play with those connections, roofing the hall with a skylight like the one that covers the courtyard, turning the courtyard’s solid walls into continuous balconies that make the tiers of seats transparent.

This transparency has a psychological aspect, too; it gives the addition a kind of through-the-looking-glass quality. A glass-walled lounge feels like a mid-20th-century Modernist house, and it’s called a living room. As with the original Gardner, the question arises: Is this space public or private? The new structure also erases distinctions between inside and outside. Sometimes it feels precarious. What if your foot slides though one of the steps? What if you fall under the railing from one of the balcony seats and bounce off the piano strings?

Precariousness, of course, is an illusion, but it acts as a prelude, setting the mood for the hall and the music. In this place, only the elemental phenomenon of performing separates musicians from audience. The musicians seem like ordinary people as they walk into the hall from a doorway in the corner, as if they are entering a living room. When they begin to play, they are transformed: They inhabit a heightened world, only 10 feet away from us.

The back leg of the piano stands over one of the floor’s supporting beams. The floor vibrates; the room vibrates. “The sound is clear and balanced,” says Nicholas Kitchen, the first violinist of the Borromeo Quartet, which took part in acoustic testing and has performed there. “In a concert, you feel it’s individuals in the audience you’re interacting with, not an undifferentiated mass. It’s not what we’re accustomed to. It’s a wonderful sensation.”

And those of us in the audience can hear every nuance, the last whisper of a violin’s fading pianissimo, a cellist’s anticipatory breath, the harmonics of the piano strings. We can hear the squeak of a performer’s rubber-soled shoes, the percussion of a dropped program in the third balcony. “The sound is very direct, and everything is exposed; it’s immediate,” Toyota said to me. “There is a visual intimacy and an acoustical intimacy.”

The clarity of sound makes it difficult to cover mistakes. Because the sound cannot be directional, it’s hard to keep a lid on a piano, which means that pianists have to adjust their playing. But every new concert hall takes getting used to. “It is like a musical instrument,” Piano says. “You have to tune it. You need time to learn it.” Toyota explains: “You need patience. Musicians are different. How do they play? How do they hear? And the audience has to learn, too. This is a unique place.”

I’ve sat on the ground floor and in the balconies, I’ve been beside the music and over it. Calderwood Hall engages us in that visceral way. We can touch the music here, we can see it, and we are changed. Watching one another, watching the musicians, we become performers, too. At the end of a concert, applause spills over the balconies like a waterfall, flooding the space with our noise. Artists and audience, we are in this together.

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