She's got an ear for acoustics

Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted as saying, "I enjoy playing the audience like a piano." And so does Eileen Jeanette.

The vice president of artistic and orchestra operations for the Pacific Symphony keeps a keen eye on how many people have bought tickets for every show at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. It's not just a matter of fretting about the crowd's reaction; Jeanette needs to know how many human bodies will occupy the seats, because that will indicate how much she needs to shift the room's acoustics to accommodate them.

Jeanette, who works as a Pacific Symphony administrator full-time, has volunteered since 2006 in another capacity: as the tonmeister (that's German for "sound master") at the concert hall. Before almost every show, the Aliso Viejo resident takes all available factors into account — number of ticket buyers, type of music, position of performers — and has the venue's staff program a computer to adjust the venue.

Is it a hard job? Not as hard as it might be in Jeanette's home state.

"I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we were in Minnesota and the people wore winter clothes," said the 47-year-old, who explained that thicker fabrics soak up more sound.

The hall, which opened in 2006 and was designed by the New York-based firm Artec Consultants, offers Jeanette an array of tools to achieve perfect acoustics. Aluminum-coated canopies on the ceiling can rise or lower; banners can move back and forth in reverberation chambers; curtains, known as travelers, can block or expose chamber doors.

It's a time-consuming endeavor; Jeanette sets the acoustics for nearly 100 shows a year. But she's never asked for a penny in return.

For that matter, she's not an expert, at least not officially. Jeanette has no extensive math or science background, and she learned to navigate acoustics on the job. Even with the staff's computer on hand to calculate a show mathematically, Jeanette often does her calculations firsthand — sitting in the audience during rehearsals and tracking the sound as it bounces around the 1,954-seat room.

When the Orange County Performing Arts Center, now Segerstrom Center for the Arts, began construction on the concert hall a decade ago, it sought the most state-of-the-art sound possible, according to public relations director Tim Dunn.

"First and foremost, it had to have perfect acoustics," Dunn wrote in an email. "It would need to accommodate an array of musical styles — large symphonic, chamber ensembles, jazz, popular music, single artists in recital, concert opera and large chorale works."

The staff turned to Artec, which has designed more than 100 venues in North and South America, Europe and Asia. After three years of construction, the hall opened in September 2006 with the Pacific Symphony, Pacific Chorale and opera star Placido Domingo sharing the bill.

While celebrities and politicians flocked to the ribbon-cutting and opening show, a mover and shaker of a different — and literal — kind was in the house: the concert hall's computer system, known as SceneControl and created by the manufacturer, J.R. Clancy. Jeanette and her colleagues have a more affectionate name for it: R2, in reference to the "Star Wars" robot R2-D2.

The tonmeister fell into her volunteer job while the Pacific Symphony was in rehearsals for opening night at Segerstrom. She had already met Russell Johnson, Artec's late founder, while touring Europe with the symphony years earlier, and at the new venue in Costa Mesa, she found herself listening in on his conversations with staff about the sound levels.

"I don't know that he came up to me," Jeanette said. "We just sort of drifted together."

Soon, the two of them struck up a friendship — to the point where, when Artec's team left Costa Mesa, it recommended to Segerstrom officials that they take Jeanette on to handle sound. Tateo Nakajima, a partner in Artec, said the company relies on technicians like Jeanette once construction on a venue is complete.

"Artec concert halls are well known for their range of ability to manipulate the systems to adjust the acoustic environment to suit the type of performance," he said. "That requires effectively moving the large pieces around appropriately depending on who's performing. That knowledge is something we, in the first months of operation, will work to pass on to the staff of the center or resident company."

Although the computer was installed in the Segerstrom venue to begin with, it took staff several weeks to work out bugs in the system, Jeanette said. For those first shows, employees often adjusted the theater manually.

Now, before a show, Jeanette fills out a computerized form indicating where the room's components should be; Tom Lane, the hall's technical director, punches the data into the computer. (See accompanying story about how Jeanette handles different scenarios for the hall.) Her guidelines can be precise: The concert hall contains 328 motors to control the various parts.

One who's grateful for those hidden gears is Brian Sullivan, director of operations for the Pacific Chorale, whose choir often sings at the concert hall. Most other venues where Sullivan's group performs do not have adjustable acoustics, he said, and Segerstrom's technology surpasses them all.

When the choir performs a cappella, Sullivan requests heavy reverb, which Jeanette achieves by opening doors and removing banners to let the voices ring back.

"We love having the ability to go from a traditional concert hall to more of a cathedral-like sound," he said.

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World