I WAS SOMEWHAT distressed to read "The Sound and the I Fury" by Kathleen Hinton-Braaten in this space last week. Although Ms. Hinton-Braaten is a valued member of the violin section of the National Symphony Orchestra, many of the comments she made about the Kennedy Center discussed items that are highly subjective, and which were presented entirely from the point of view of one particular musician sitting on the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Her feelings do not represent those of the National Symphony Orchestra Association, and I would like to give another perspective.
First, a few words about my own background. I have been on stage, backstage, and in the seats of over 100 concert halls in the United States, Canada, South America, Mexico and Europe. I have also functioned as a recording engineer in a number of halls. I supervised the acoustical renovations of one auditorium and was involved in the planning and completion of a new performing arts center in Syracuse, N.Y. I have heard concerts from all sections of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and my own opinion is that it is an absolutely first class concert hall, with a more satisfying acoustic than the vast majority of halls. The sound is warm, has impact and clarity, and a reasonable evenness of frequency response. Many halls, even famous ones, have some locations with wondrous sound and other locations where the sound is actually quite problematic. At the Kennedy Center the variance from one location to another is minimal.
It is true that there are some problems the musicians on stage have in hearing each other. These problems have been a subject of discussion between myself and the Kennedy Center staff, and we are beginning to look for solutions that will work on that problem without destroying the acoustical ambiance for the audience.
Some of the halls which Ms. Hinton-Braaten held up as models have backstage conditions that are quite primitive. She raved about the Teatro Colon, for instance, which has dressing room and lavatory facilities that are quite rudimentary. The backstage conditions at Carnegie Hall are famous for being tight and highly uncomfortable for orchestras. I have also heard a good many of the halls she specified in her article, and I feel strongly that from the point of view of the sound the audience hears, the Kennedy Center is preferable to most of them.
The subject of temperature and humidity fluctuations was presented with an oversimplified approach for a very complicated problem -- one which is troublesome to concert halls all over the world. To design a system that can cope with temperature and humidity control in a large room that is empty and moderately lit at 8 p.m., and by 8:30 contains 3,000 people and bright stage lights, is a gigantic task. Orchestra musicians everywhere complain about temperature and humidity -- and rightly so, because those factors have a major impact on the way they perform. But as much as I support their battle to improve those conditions, it is sad to see the problem brought to the public and presented with little understanding of its complexity.
What was very disturbing was the negative tone of the article, which came at a time when the management of the National Symphony and the management of the Kennedy Center have begun what most observers have felt was a new era of cooperation. We have begun regular meetings on some of the specific problems referred to in last week's article. The Kennedy Center staff has met with orchestra musician representatives, and has begun to seek solutions. In this new era of mutual concern and understanding, in which the attitude of the Kennedy Center staff has been extremely constructive and positive, the negative tone of last week's article seems inappropriate.
In the five months that I have been in this area, it has become increasingly clear to me that the Kennedy Center is an extraordinary asset to this area, and that it has galvanized the artistic life of the community in a way that very few arts centers anywhere have done. It has therefore substantially contributed to the growth and success of the National Symphony. It has done all of that because it is a success. It has its share of problems, to be sure, but it is a facility that offers the people of Washington and the entire country real cause for pride.