D.M. Symphony breaks out of its shell

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Jonathan Sturm stood alone in the middle of the Des Moines Civic Center stage, lifted his violin to his chin and ripped from its strings a Paganini solo, a chutes-and-ladders dash of flashy runs and broken chords. Then he took about 10 steps forward and played the same thing on the edge of the stage.

The difference was subtle but clear. It was a little warmer the second time around.

“I sound like a million dollars more than I did back there,” he said.

His estimate was pretty close, actually. Towering behind him were the maple panels of a new stage shell, the centerpiece of a $1.5 million project to improve the Civic Center’s acoustics. Audiences will get their first chance to see and hear this weekend when concertmaster Sturm and the rest of the Des Moines Symphony open their 77th season with a program designed to show off the new sound – mellower high notes, crisper notes in the middle and a heftier bass.

“It’s the next best thing to building a new concert hall,” the Symphony’s executive director, Richard Early, said.

The Civic Center opened in 1979 as a multi-purpose auditorium for concerts, plays, dance recitals and more, and its acoustics were already pretty good, Symphony leaders said. All 2,700 seats are within 145 feet from center stage.

To make that happen, however, the architects designed a fan-shaped auditorium that is much wider than most venues that were built specifically for music. Places that are famous for their acoustics – Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall, the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles – tend to be more narrow, with balconies stacked to the ceiling.

So the Civic Center improvements can do only so much.

“It’s not an easy task to take a hall where a lot of things are going right and tweak it so it’s 10 or 20 percent better,” Des Moines Symphony music director Joseph Giunta said.

At a meeting onstage this summer, he introduced a handful of Symphony board members and donors to the project’s chief acoustician, Joseph Myers, the president of Kirkegaard Associates, an acoustic consulting firm in Chicago. Myers is used to interpreting physics for non-experts, and he described the Civic Center project in terms that sounded a lot like psychotherapy.

“We try to understand how a room is behaving,” he said. “We want to accept a room for what it is – not to change it, but to make it a better version of itself.”

To do that, his team hauled in a pile of high-tech tools over the last couple of years to measure and map the room’s acoustics. They analyzed how long it took high and low notes to ricochet around the room. They popped balloons onstage this spring to hear how sound waves bounced to the audience and back to the stage.

Then they recommended some changes, which construction crews have installed in three parts this summer:

» Wenger Corp. of Owatonna, Minn., made the new maple-veneered shell, which is harder than the old shell made from bumpy white fiberboard. The curved profile of the new ceiling projects sound better to both the performers and the audience.

» Cloth-covered felt and hardboard panels march up the auditorium’s side walls to absorb extra feedback, especially in the high ranges that can muddy up the overall effect.

» Crumple-textured black tiles of reinforced gypsum board cover the back wall, behind the audience, to give the sound more resonance. Heavy black curtains can be drawn to cover it up for clearer results.

A second phase of renovations should take place in the next year or two, when a construction crew will give the proscenium arch a face-lift, raising the “brow” above the stage a few feet higher. The change will help spread sound waves more evenly to the front and middle of the audience, instead of pushing them to the back rows, where they tend to go now.

The Civic Center’s audio guru, Greg Tracy, pointed up to the cheaper seats during a recent technical rehearsal.

“I’ll guarantee you it sounds better back there,” he said.

Tracy was one of several staffers who gathered two weeks ago to test out the shell for the first time, before they had to pack it away for last week’s run of “Dirty Dancing.” He sat halfway back in the audience and listened to a few Symphony musicians adjust to their swanky new surroundings.

“There’s so much more energy coming off the stage,” he said.

In three small groups – first strings, then brass and woodwinds – the musicians took turns on stage, playing a bit, then switching seats, then playing a bit more to listen for the differences. Myers, the acoustician, compared the session to an eye exam: “Is this better? Is this clearer? Or is it just darker?”

At a certain point, the nuances are lost on untrained ears. Improvements in clarity and blend among professional musicians can be as subtle as the nanoseconds Olympians shave off when they wear spandex – or as lovely as the Emperor’s new clothes. If anyone didn’t hear the differences with the new Civic Center shell, they didn’t say so at the rehearsal.

The musicians agreed that they could hear one another better, even if they struggled to put the improvements into exact words. It was “rounder sounding” and “tighter.” There was a “lushness.”

Des Moines Symphony’s first ever Conduct Us! put the baton in the hands of citizens to control an ensemble of professional musicians, sometimes with hilarious results.

“I’ve never been able to hear my cello section before,” said principal cellist Julie Sturm (who is married to the concertmaster). “I can finally hear them now, and the basses behind me.”

Maestro Giunta trotted back and forth from the stage to the middle rows of the audience, where he said the sound was generally cleaner, warmer and more enveloping. After two hours he thanked the musicians and dismissed them.

“I think we’ve learned what we can,” he said. “It’s been such a relief to hear.”

The next day, a stage crew practiced re-adjusting the shell to accommodate a larger group, for the times when the orchestra performs with a chorus. The shell’s back panels fold out to become side walls, and an extra ceiling panel drops down from the rafters.

The entire thing can be folded up in a few hours and stored backstage during all but the biggest touring shows, like “Wicked” or “The Lion King,” when crews will have to stash it off site. That convenience is one reason the Civic Center’s parent organization, Des Moines Performing Arts, helped the Symphony pay for it.

“It may be their circus, but it’s our tent,” DMPA chief Jeff Chelesvig said.

The circus starts again this weekend, with Copland’s brassy hoe-down from “Rodeo,” highlights from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “State Fair,” and the full-length premiere of Peter Hamlin’s “Symphony on a Stick,” parts of which the orchestra played in July at the Yankee Doodle Pops. Its 10 movements and accompanying video projections include tributes to the Iowa State Fair’s Butter Cow, with a lowing clarinet melody, and the Big Boar, with lumbering solos for the contrabassoon.

The knee-slappers will be paired with slightly more dignified fare, namely Berlioz’s “Corsaire” overture and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring the Russian-American pianist Natasha Paremski.

Maestro Giunta said he planned the season’s first three programs with the new shell in mind, aiming to “throw out a lot of different styles and see what happens.” That includes a pair of major symphonies, Beethoven’s Sixth (“Pastoral”) and Prokofiev’s Fifth, plus Rimsky-Korsakov’s flashy “Capriccio Espagnol.”

After 28 years on the podium, the conductor said the upcoming concerts in the new shell are part of his long-term plan to enrich the concert experience for the orchestra and audience alike.

“It’s very likely we’ll be firing on all cylinders,” he said. “I’m excited about what I’ve heard so far.”

Symphony Week

The Des Moines Symphony kicks off its 77th season with a week full of events leading up to the unveiling of the new acoustical shell at the opening concerts. The highlights:

Drink specials all week on two of music director Joseph Giunta’s favorites – the Maestro and the Italian Mule – at Centro, plus daily lunch-hour specials at Big City Burgers and Greens (Monday), Sidebar (Tuesday), BOS and Ritual Cafe (Wednesday) and Dos Rios (Thursday).

“Symphony With a Twist,” an open rehearsal with cocktails at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Temple for Performing Arts.

Symphony-themed trivia games at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Wellman’s Pub on Ingergoll Avenue and 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Wellman’s in West Des Moines. No cover.

A chance to conduct an orchestra ensemble from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday at Capital Square. All maestros welcome; a baton will be provided.

The first of four “Classical Conversations” with music scholar Eric Saylor at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Temple. $15 per class.

A master class with pianist Natasha Paremski from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday at the Civic Center. Free and open to the public.

A pre-rehearsal reception for college-student season subscribers at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Coda Lounge.

The opening concerts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Civic Center. $15-$60, with discounts for students.

Find all the details at www.dmsymphony.org.

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