Tale of the acoustic veil

The exterior of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Michael and Sonja Koerner Hall at the Telus Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in September, may be your standard International Style reticulated box. Inside the audience chamber, though, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects partner Marianne McKenna let her hair down with a dramatic white-oak veil that wraps the ceiling and front wall. Its lacy curves are as satisfyingly sensuous as the serpentine forms in Frank Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario reno a few blocks away.

Although McKenna was seemingly influenced by wheat sheaves or tuning forks, her veil owes its form to a collaboration with Koerner’s acoustician, Robert Essert, president of Sound Space Design, in London. As acoustician for the excellent Four Seasons Opera House, and a member of the team, while employed at New York — based Artec Consultants, on George Weston Recital Hall in North York and the Roy Thomson Hall renovation, he considers Toronto to be his home away from home.

To make Koerner seem unusually intimate for its seat count (1,135), McKenna wanted the ceiling to appear lower. She also wanted to conceal the lighting, rigging and loudspeakers. “There’s a forest of steel and catwalks up there,” says Essert. “Instead of big bands cutting across the ceiling where the lighting positions are, they’re carefully obscured by her veil and by the lighting. Her timber elements weave in and out and open at the right places and angles so that the light beams shoot right through.”

Aside from gracefully concealing the mechanicals, McKenna’s veil affects the acoustics. “Downstage of the reflector surface, the veil had to be absent and not block the sound from going up to the ceiling,” Essert explains. “Here, the ribs are more or less vertical. I wanted some three-dimensional relief over the players as the ribs come forward. But down at the choir loft they are more like tree trunks, scattering the sound behind the brass to help balance with the strings. By twisting the ribs, Marianne’s design graciously turns ceiling-obscuring elements into sound-scattering elements. Her veil — the design element that ties everything together — is acoustically absent at the back of the hall and acoustically productive at the front.”

How would Essert sum up Koerner’s sound? “Clarity along with resonance, instead of just having lots of reverberation that muddies things.” CI