The Sounds of Silence–The Profound Acoustics Of NJPAC’s Prudential Hall

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
Aldous Huxley

 

On Friday evening, January 8th, in Prudential Hall at the New Jersey Performance Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, New Jersey, I enjoyed perhaps the most profound encounter with the sounds of silence that I can recall in a lifetime of live music events. (I’ve been under the weather of late, so I’m only now getting around to posting and toasting, upon considerable reflection.)

This memorable banquet of music was chaired by one of the great living masters of violin, Pinchas
Zuckerman
, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Elgar’s Serenade For Strings and Brahms’ epic Symphony #1 in C Minor, while stepping out front in a definitive interpretation of
Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5.

So why then, is my most enduring take-away from that evening the experience of silence?

Because silence is the medium upon which great artists paint in music, and trust me, if you’ve never experienced a concert at NJPAC’s state of the art facilities, than truly, you have not heard the immersive power that live music can convey when portrayed upon such a pristine, finely-tuned, damn near perfect acoustic canvas.

The big, Italian-Opera House styled, 2700-seat PRUDENTIAL HALL, and the more intimate, 500-seat VICTORIA THEATER, in terms of both sight lines and sound, are probably the finest-sounding, most deeply involving venues for experiencing acoustic music in the NYC metropolitan area, decisively stomping Manhattan’s much-vaunted but critically flawed Carnegie Hall & David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher Hall)–and certainly on par with the small nightclub/theater/concert hall venues featured at Jazz At Lincoln Center’s purpose-designed facilities in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.

In 1986, at the behest of then Governor Tom Kean, in a rare confluence of civic pride and artistic ambition, it was decided that New Jersey should no longer be a poor cousin to New York City, and that it was time to run with the big dogs—that the state and its residents deserved world class performing arts center of their own. It was not until 1993 that ground was finally broken on an ambitious design by architect Barton Meyers, and in the fall of 1997, the facility was unveiled in a momentous opening night, graced by the likes of Wynton Marsalis & the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

In delving into some of the technical considerations that went into the design of Prudential Hall, I was fascinated to discover how many variables in the horseshoe-shaped space (which suggested an Italian Opera House) could be controlled and modified—in every way shape and form.

Prudential Hall was configured in the manner of a fine cello, and in fact, can be fine-tuned like a musical instrument. Several layers of insulation are built into the walls to achieve a box within a box effect, and acoustically isolate the entire hall from the rumble of street traffic and jet traffic coming in and out of Newark International Airport. And in keeping with this silence is golden theme, the heating and air-conditioning systems are vented and noiseless. And in perusing the ornamental facades on the front of the sky boxes and upper balconies, I wondered aloud if they had any acoustical purpose beyond lending an elegant stylistic touch? Turns out they do, acting as high frequency diffusers to dissipate peaks and reflective waves that can create audible distortions and acoustical anomalies in different areas of the hall.

NJ-PAC-Prudential-HallTurns out, even the enormous, ornamental chandelier on the ceiling, is actually a refractive glass sphere. Without reference to anything technical or quantifiable, my sense of its acoustic function, is to dissipate standing waves and reflections that can result in something all seekers after acoustic music have experienced—where there is a palpable drop-out and cancellation of certain frequencies. I can recall hearing Pierre Boulez conduct the London Symphony from roughly tenth row center at Carnegie Hall, courtesy of Bill Low, President of AudioQuest, and it was one of the most profound musical experiences in my life. So inspired, I subsequently bought tickets for the first balcony to hear Claudio Abbado conduct Mahler’s Seventh. Less than two months after 9-11, I suppose they did not have sufficient rehearsal time, so did Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth instead. The orchestra sounded a million miles away, its midrange milky and indistinct, with no low end to speak of and a muted top end. No impact or oomph.  Bummer.

Additionally at the Prudential Hall concert I attended, immediately behind the orchestra were a set of concert towers, which when coupled with acoustical curtains, motorized sound absorptive/cloth-acoustical panels above the stage, and a series of motorized boundary surfaces, enables sound engineers to acoustically modify the hall and control reverberation patterns/fine tune tonal characteristics–optimizing performance parameters for different styles of acoustic or amplified music.  Additionally, in the course of researching this piece, I discovered a book on Amazon.com which potentially offers even greater detail on the entire NJPAC design process, New Stage for a City: Designing the New Jersey Performing Arts Center by Michael Webb.

In other words, if we may cut to the chase, one size does not fit all. I was immediately aware of how finely tuned the acoustic environment was when my friend and I first took our seats (on the aisle, in the 16th row). I snapped my fingers and clapped my hands, and was immediately thrilled to hear how crisp and snappy and…ALIVE the acoustics of the hall itself were—the silence itself was electrifying. “Man, you hear that,” I enthused. “I hope the hall doesn’t prove to be too peaky in the high frequencies.”

Well, when Zukerman and the Royal Philharmonic opened with Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, I was captivated both the precision and top to bottom balance of the sound. The midrange was uncolored and richly detailed; the high frequencies sumptuously detailed, as harmonics and overtones seemed to simply float on a magic carpet of acoustic resonances (minus the accustomed glare too often experienced in big halls); while the bass was full-bodied and foundational without any tubby bloat or distortions that obtruded on the midrange.

I was flabbergasted at how clearly delineated and holographic the frequencies of the violin, viola, cello and double-bass sections were, and not in a clinical analytical manner. The warmth and dynamics of the low, midrange and high frequencies were beautifully blended; I experienced the harmonies and moving voices both as part of an organic continuum and as individual elements—not unlike how conductor Pinchas Zukerman likely experienced their interactions from the podium itself. That, my friends, is a mesmerizing level of acoustic accuracy and intimacy that invites one to participate in the performance—not simply to observe it…total immersion.

Even better was the Mozart Violin Concerto # 5, in which Zukerman, one of the premier violin and viola virtuosos of the past half century, stepped out front.

As a drummer myself, in listening to the timpani player tune up his array of kettle drums, I was taken aback by how perceptible the leading edge of his transients and the instruments’ overtone series were, let alone the most subtle degrees of detail—and this at a very, very subdued volume level. In performance, once again, the dynamic range of the timpani from ppppp to fffff was perfectly balanced, both as an individual image, and as part of the overall orchestral blend.

But even more impressive, was how the details and nuances and inflections of Zukerman’s violin were so dramatically depicted in both the quietest solo passages and when the entire orchestra was rocking in rhythm.

And as a closer, the experience of Brahms’ First Symphony, a piece which I have listened to hundreds and hundreds of time since I was a little boy (I just turned 64), was so emotionally overwhelming, that I was in tears half the time. Look, I don’t mean to get all sappy on you, but seriously, I know this piece backwards and forwards, and as masterful an interpretation as Zukerman and The Royal Philharmonic offered, the acoustics of Prudential Hall served to illuminate flesh out every passage.

You see, in Brahms, there are so many complex harmonic interactions, in which themes and contrapuntal elements are passed around from section to section, rhythmically supercharged and run through the rollers in the call and response manner of multiple choirs, that the effect is like a hall of mirrors; just as dramatic as a motherfucker, if you’ll pardon my French–fist-pumping, scream out loud, room-full of cigarette lighters, to be or not to be dramatic.  Such a wealth of detail that one can often miss the forest for the trees.  But in this performance, everything was clear as a bell.

And yet, ironically, it was during the quietest passages, when the music took on a prayer-like quality, and from moment to moment there were no sounds at all emanating from the stage (and one could experience the collective focus of the audience, awash in that profound, golden silence, with nary a soul seeming to breathe) that one’s sense of musical immersion seemed most compelling. It’s been a month, and I can still feel the electricity in the small of my back. BRAVO.

Plainly, for me, the experience of spiritual immersion in music—be it at a concert setting or in the sweet spot of my all-singing/all-dancing high end audio system—is not a casual affair. I’m in it for the total gusto dunk, and the closer I can get to the heart of a performance, the better.

Prudential Hall, and the more intimate Victoria Theater are the real deal, folks.  I enjoyed a memorable acoustic jazz program at the Victoria back in the fall of 2014, featuring a series of electrifying duets between the iconic banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and master bassist Christian McBride; subsequently they were joined by the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet on a series of set pieces drawn from a sampling of Bela’s chamber music originals.  And believe me, Bela and friends didn’t just deliver the goods, they set the table, laid out a banquet, did the dishes…and called me a cab.  And again, as with the larger hall, the acoustics and sight lines of the Victoria Theater were such, that you felt less like an observer, and more like a participant in the performance.

So, if you are looking for an immersive experience of music at a relaxed, comfortable venue with ample parking and lots of lovely bars, bistros and cafes, it is well worth the drive out to NJPAC in Newark—where silence is golden.

Me? I am curious to hear how Prudential Hall sounds from different perspectives in the upper balconies and boxes. (I heard the Wayne Shorter Quartet from way on the top pavilion like 15-or-so years ago, so my memories are a tad vague and distant.)  Likewise, as good as a symphony orchestra sounded in the big hall, I was left wondering how a solo voice or acoustic piano would project; furthermore, what would happen if you took a really heavy duty contemporary ensemble such as King Crimson, with multiple drum sets and a ferocious wall of electric guitars and bass instruments blasting away–how would the hall react, and could it portray something like a proper dynamic balance?

Well, NJPAC recently announced a series of concerts for the 2016 season, so there will be ample opportunities to explore a variety of events at the big Prudential Hall, the more intimate Victoria Theater, and some cabaret-styled facilities I have yet to explore.

NJPAC EVENTS & TICKETS

In addition to a wide-ranging series of theatrical, spoken word, and comedy presentations (such as the fearless Gilbert Gottfried at the Victoria Theater on Friday, March 11), among the highlights coming round the bend over the spring, summer and fall of this year at Prudential Hall, are the following:

Johnny Mathis: The 60th Anniversary Concert Tour (March 12, 2016)

Conductor/Violinist Joshua Bell & the Academy of St. Martin In The Fields in a program featuring the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the Bach Concerto for Two Violins and Symphonies by Prokofiev and Beethoven (March 19, 2016)

Xian Shang & The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in a program of Tchaikovsky and Samuel Barber (April 7-8, 2016)

Michael Tilson Thomas & The San Francisco Symphony in a program of Schumann and Aaron Copeland (April 15, 2016)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (May 6-8, 2016)

An Evening With The Tedeschi-Trucks Band (May 13, 2016)

Jessye Norman with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (May 21, 2016)

Jacques Lacombe and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in a program of Ravel and Rachmaninoff (June 12, 2016)

Gianandrea Noseda & The London Symphony Orchestra featuring pianist Yuja Wang in a program of Ravel and Shostakovich (October 29, 2016)

Acclaimed Vocalist Renee Fleming In Recital (November 4, 2016)

 

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