Russell Johnson, 83; innovative acoustician for classical music venues

Times Staff Writer

Russell Johnson, whose inventive approach to the acoustic design of major performance venues allowed halls around the world to adjust to the requirements of a symphony or a jazz ensemble, has died. He was 83.

The founder of Artec Consultants, Johnson was found dead in his New York City apartment Tuesday after he failed to show up at his office. He died in his sleep, said Tateo Nakajima, one of Artec’s managing directors.

Johnson had completed more than 140 projects since opening his own acoustics and theater design firm 37 years ago. He was best-known for his work on concert halls, including the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, Symphony Hall in Birmingham, England, and Lucerne Concert Hall in Switzerland. One of his most recent projects was the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which opened last year in Costa Mesa.


“The overriding impression and lasting feeling about Russell was he devoted his life to making the art of acoustics into a science,” philanthropist Henry Segerstrom said Thursday. “We all talk about the art of the acoustics. He wanted the art to be a science. He had absolute dedication to the perfection of acoustics.”

Johnson, said Cesar Pelli, the renowned architect who collaborated with Johnson on Segerstrom Concert Hall and the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, “truly understood acoustics. He just had an incredible ear and extraordinary understanding of what makes theaters be alive with music -- not just the mechanics of the music but all of the psychological aspects.”

An innovator who looked to the past for inspiration, Johnson drew basic principles from the great 19th-century concert halls of Europe. He found that the ones most cherished by musicians had certain elements in common, chief among them size -- they held no more than 2,000 seats -- and a shoe-box shape. To these parameters Johnson added features such as flexible, sound-cushioning canopies above the orchestra, reverberation chambers with doors that open and close, and a system of motorized curtains, all of which can be individually adjusted to customize the sound quality of a room.

“I believe that you cannot, should not, design opera houses and concert halls for the next century unless you really understand the last three centuries of the design of this type of building,” he told Canada’s National Post in 2002.

Johnson’s specialty did not exist when he was growing up in rural Berwick, Pa., in the 1920s and ‘30s, nor was music part of his heritage. His mother was a homemaker, and his father and grandfather worked at the American Car and Foundry Co. plant. He was keenly curious as a boy, however, and once climbed inside the pipe organ at church to understand its inner workings. He discovered Wagner when he was about 12 and soon was tuning in to weekly radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. By the time he was in high school he had decided to become a recording engineer for classical music.

During World War II, Johnson served in the Army Signal Corps. When he completed his service three years later, he changed his career goal to designing concert halls and theaters. He enrolled at what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and later transferred to Yale, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1951.

By 1954 Johnson had joined the Cambridge, Mass., office of Bolt Beranek Newman, founded -- as the country’s first large commercial acoustical consulting firm -- by physicists trained at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Assigned to work on concert halls and opera houses, he quickly learned that acousticians were not the most popular members of the design team.

“When I first worked in acoustics more than 40 years ago,” Johnson told the Financial Times of London in 1997, “I found that as soon as I told musicians I was an acoustician, they wanted to wring my neck.”

He listened to their complaints about performing in venues where the acoustics were so poor they could not hear each other play, much less hope that their notes were heard properly from the orchestra level to the balconies.

He began to study the history of concert hall design and concluded that the best halls were built between about 1840 and 1905. After World War I, a demand arose for concert halls that could serve multiple purposes, hosting symphonies as well as music theater, choral societies and lectures. Smaller auditoriums gave way to venues that could hold 3,000 to 4,000 people. These trends, Johnson believed, led to acoustical nightmares.

At Bolt Beranek Newman, he worked with co-founder Leo Beranek on an early version of a chamber that could be opened and closed to adjust reverberation. They also designed the first canopy, built for the New Tanglewood Concert Shell in Massachusetts, to cushion the sound so musicians onstage could hear themselves better. The Tanglewood model was a fixed canopy; Johnson later designed one that was split into three adjustable parts to better customize the sound effects.

“He was an innovator,” said Beranek, but his greatest contribution was that he “insisted that architects take acoustics very seriously.”

Some of Johnson’s projects have been harshly criticized -- among them Verizon Hall, part of the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.

Critics panned it as “an acoustical Sahara” with “an outright ugliness” of sound when it opened in 2001. Johnson said construction delays had led to the hall’s opening before the acoustics were completed. Adjustments were made, and two years later some of the critics who had been so harsh marveled at the difference. One was The Times’ Mark Swed, who wrote of an acoustical transformation so dramatic that he “felt as though that violin was hovering magically in the air all around me.”

Johnson once said his goal was to create an environment where musicians and conductor “can hear, or sense, what the audience is hearing. There must be no distance effect. . . no harshness of sound, no echoes, no frequency imbalances. There must be air around the music, as if the music is floating.”

Johnson is survived by a sister, Barbara Johnson Mansfield, of Vienna, Va.; two nephews; and a niece.