Abe Meltzer, chief consulting acoustician to the Music Center Operating Co. and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, leans back in a chair in a fourth--floor conference room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center. A diminutive 59--year--old man of alert manner and a youthful personal style, Meltzer seems at once both wary and mellow--like a man with something up his sleeve. Something magical and mysterious. Something like his $3.5--million plan to fix the acoustics in the Pavilion.
Fix the acoustics? Why? How?
A native of Romania, a citizen of Israel, trained as a nuclear physicist in the 1940s, later a graduate in the 1960s of the Rotterdam Conservatory, Meltzer has been a consultant to the Philharmonic for nearly a decade.
What exactly is wrong with the Pavilion's sound depends on who's hearing it. It doesn't seem to please some ears, or to be as good as it ought to be--muffled in some seating areas, too loud in some sections, too brassy in others.
How does Meltzer intend to enhance the acoustics?
With chandeliers, for starters.
"Using chandeliers in the Pavilion is an elegant way to accomplish an acoustical end," he says.
"We should, I think, add six to eight chandeliers, in two rows, not for lighting, but for scattering the sound." He stresses that they would fit visually and aesthetically into Pavilion decor. "In these ways, the sound in the auditorium will be improved as much as it can be improved.
"We are talking improvement, no miracles."
He is also talking controversial corrections in a theater that some observers claim doesn't need fixing. Meltzer admits that the basic acoustical problem for orchestras playing in the Pavilion is the fact that "the auditorium is a multipurpose room, not a concert hall. Acoustically, this is not a bad house. As a concert hall, however, it is not really good."
In January, Meltzer's acoustical renovation proposals were placed before the Board of Governors of the Music Center Operating Co., which runs the Center and acts as landlord in representing the actual owner of the land, the County of Los Angeles. However, the board tabled the plan at that time, asking for more information at its April meeting. The board will receive the formal proposal April 24.
"Let's get this straight," says Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the Philharmonic, "The acoustics in the Pavilion are OK. However, the lack of a full bass response is well known. It is also well known, and has been since the building was new, that the auditorium is very live--a condition not always negative. Winds and brass in this room tend to sound loud even when they are playing softly.
"Also, we know that the sound, not bad downstairs, improves as one moves higher in the auditorium. It's better in the Founders Circle, even better in the succeeding' balconies."
Recently, one longtime Philharmonic subscriber, Bob Reid of Long Beach, said he and his wife Diane changed their balcony seats to the second level of the loge (one level up from the Founders Circle)--but with no discernible change in sound quality.
During his 14 years attending concerts at the Pavilion, Reid has sampled sound in different parts of the auditorium. "I noticed a wild difference in the sound at different spots in the orchestra section," he says. "Some spots are really vibrant, and others considerably less so." The most resonant spot downstairs, Reid says, was behind the last row of seats. "From there, the orchestral sound just about knocked me over."
On the other side of the proscenium, conductors and performers trying to adjust to the Pavilion's acoustics have widely differing views on the subject.
Veteran conductor Roger Wagner, founder of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, a regular performer in the Pavilion for the first 21 seasons, says he has "always liked the Pavilion acoustics, though we all know the place has dead spots both on the stage and in the auditorium."
Over the years, Wagner says, "there have been some slight changes in the sound in the room--the Philharmonic has always played around with it. Right now, I think we are getting more bass (response) than we used to." In recent seasons, however, Wagner claims, "Ernest (Fleischmann) has opened up the back of the (orchestral) shell, and some of the sound now disappears.
"In this, Abe (Meltzer) and I disagree," Wagner says, !I think the shell should enclose the performers completely. Otherwise, the sound escapes upward, and the audience does not get all the tone the musicians are making."
Erich Leinsdorf, the veteran conductor and a longtime guest on the Philharmonic podium, says that "the continuing problem on the (Pavilion) stage is the fact that the players cannot always hear each other. Solving that problem would automatically fix some of the things that go wrong at concerts."
That is precisely the approach taken by Andre Previn, the Philharmonic's newest music director. While not specifically acknowledging the acoustical qualities of the Pavilion, Previn obviously has been seeking musical solutions to its problems.
"First, I've moved the violas out front (outside, to the conductor's right), and the cellos inside. This is a placement I like anyway, because it brings out inner voices. But it also enables the cellos to play straight out into the auditorium--and that's a good thing, because, as we have observed, there is a faulty bass response in this house," Previn says.
"Second, and not actually for the acoustics but for reasons of ensemble, all the winds, who were formerly on risers and placed just miles upstage, are now much further downstage. Where formerly it was difficult for them to hear the rest of the orchestra, and they were sometimes forced to anticipate the beat (because of the distance), they now have much more the feeling of being together, more a chamber--music feeling."
Thomas Stevens, principal trumpet of the L.A. Philharmonic, says playing on the Pavilion stage can be tricky. "In this room, you can't play loud enough and you can't play soft enough. Dynamics tend to get lost here. Let's face it: The Pavilion is an acoustical turkey."
Says principal hornist William Lane: "It's always been difficult to gauge dynamics and balance from the Pavilion stage. One night recently when there was a violin soloist, we felt the balance was perfect. Later, someone I trust who was sitting in the audience told me we were too loud. That kind of thing happens all the time."
Cellist Peter Snyder, another Philharmonic veteran (since 1973), disagrees with Lane. "The conductor can usually judge things like loudness and balances," he said. "The fact is, on the stage, we can usually hear each other. But the best sound in town, which we only discovered recently, is the Wiltern Theatre, where we rehearsed for the opening of this season (and where the Philharmonic will play three concerts in the 1986--87 season). That sound is great."
Several players agreed the orchestra sounds better and hears itself better in renovated Royce Hall at UCLA, where it does its recording, not to mention Carnegie Hall in New York, where it has played a number of times in recent years.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic's acoustical problems are nothing new to Meltzer. He first dealt with them in 1977, when he was brought here at the request of former music director Zubin Mehta. Now music director of the New York Philharmonic, Mehta (who declined to be interviewed for this article) was quoted on the Pavilion's opening night, Dec. 6, 1964, as shouting from the stage, "We love the acoustics!"
Meltzer was consultant on the first renovation of the Pavilion's orchestra pit, before the "Falstaff" performances mounted by the Philharmonic in 1982. He was also in charge of the changes in the sound system at Hollywood Bowl over the past decade.
Seven years ago, Meltzer says, "the Philharmonic asked me to design a new shell for its performances in the Pavilion. I refused, telling them a new shell was out of the question and would be a complete waste of money because it would not address the real problems of orchestral sound in this auditorium."
The basic acoustical problem for orchestras playing in the Pavilion, Meltzer says, is the fact that "the auditorium is a multipurpose room, not a concert hall."
To address the problem, three years ago, on Meltzer's recommendations, the Philharmonic experimented with moving the orchestra further into the auditorium, over the rebuilt orchestra pit, to try to get, as Fleischmann describes it, "at least the string sections into the auditorium."
"When we did that," Meltzer says, "(then music director Carlo Maria) Giulini was so happy. The orchestra players were so happy. But, right away, we got a lot of complaints from the audience. Some of them could no longer see the whole orchestra from their seats, especially from the seats above the Founders Circle."
Scratch that solution. Now, Meltzer makes the following recommendations:
"Remove the lowermost eight feet from the existing proscenium arch (below the structure beams), to let sound into the auditorium from the stage area.
"Install, for orchestra concerts, one--foot risers on the stage floor. These risers will reflect sound--just as in a real concert hall. And the one--foot raise will improve existing sightlines."
"Add chandeliers in the house for the scattering of sound. Scattering means mixing and blending the sound, and minimizing echoes."
The musical effect of the renovations will be, according to the acoustician, "first, to improve orchestral balances both on the stage and in the house; in the present configuration, the louder instruments mask the weaker ones. Also, to create a better audience contact and intimacy by bringing the most delicate instruments into the house. What we have now (before renovations) is what acousticians call 'coupled rooms,' that is, a long stage house with a high--ceilinged auditorium."
At least one acoustician not associated with the project agrees with some aspects of Meltzer's assessments. Ronald McKay, a senior consultant with Bolt Beranek and Newman Laboratories in Canoga Park, says when the Philharmonic experimented with orchestral sound by moving the orchestra out onto the (raised) pit area, "the result was that the sense of reverberance in the hall was markedly increased."
Like others, McKay stresses that the Pavilion is a multipurpose room. "Acousticians say the Pavilion is a 'faithful' hall in that it reproduces music the way it is played, but does not enhance it like some of the older concert halls do--places like Symphony Hall in Boston, for instance. That kind of enhancement is difficult to achieve, and it does not happen in the Pavilion."
If his proposal is accepted, Meltzer predicts that "the sound in the auditorium will be improved as much as it can be improved. An all the Music Center resident companies who use the Pavilion will benefit equally, not just the Philharmonic."
But, he adds mischievously, "the real solution to the orchestra's need for a good concert hall is to build a good concert hall, a place the orchestra could occupy every day of the year."
These proposed architectural renovations, according to Fleishmann, spearhead of the project, would not only improve sound in the 3,215--seat auditorium but would make possible quick stageturnovers from the building's use as a hall for symphonic performances into its function as a home for opera--with the recent mobilization of Music Center Opera as a producing organization due to mount its first productions in the Pavilion in October.
Meltzer's cohort in the acoustical/architectural proposals is George Howard, founder of George Thomas Howard Associates, the architectural/engineering consulting firm specializing in theaters.
"None of the separate (building) projects for renovations or upgrading is particularly difficult," Howard says. "After 20 years, of course, it is inevitable that some changes and upgradings would be needed in the building. We have learned so much, acoustically and otherwise, in this time."
Will the changes work? Nobody is promising anything--including Meltzer.
"Acoustics is an inexact science," he says. "Some things are measurable--like reverberation time and ambient sound--but others are not. How can you measure warmth of sound? That is a subjective matter."