The Acoustics of the Elbphilharmonie

8 March 2017

A concert hall’s acoustics are often controversial, not in the least because many factors come into play: not only location, genre, perspective and purpose, but also mechanics, temperature, and – above all – personal taste. 

Since the Elbphilharmonie’s opening in January 2017, its acoustics, designed by renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, have likewise been subject to close scrutiny. Many praise the hall’s incredible transparency of sound; others question whether this extreme clarity might also have an adverse effect on the concert experience. 

For MCO musicians, being able to listen to each other on stage is a crucial part of the orchestra’s chamber music way of music making. Were the Elbphilharmonie’s acoustics compatible with the MCO’s philosophy? How did the orchestra overcome the challenge of an unfamiliar – and very new – sound? After the MCO’s celebrated Elbphilharmonie debut with Artistic Partner Mitsuko Uchida, a group of MCO musicians weighed in on the Great Hall’s acoustics and shared their observations and thoughts on playing there.

Do the Elbphilharmonie’s design and material play a role in the hall’s acoustics?
“The soaring feeling one gets from the panoramic view from the windows of the rooms surrounding the hall – of Hamburg’s harbour and city centre – certainly carries over to the stage.” Martin Piechotta (timpani)

“I was expecting much more depth in the sound... perhaps it’s too clean. I believe in natural materials for a hall.” Geoffroy Schied (first violin)

How was the sound from the stage?

“I loved playing there. Although the hall is big and open, it feels intimate at the same time, like a chamber music hall.” Cindy Albracht (first violin)

“The sound of the orchestra coalesces onstage and in the auditorium but it is a startlingly transparent blend in which every individual voice is heard. This was perfect for both composers’ music in the programme and the results for Berio’s Coro should be even more exciting.” Matthew Sadler (trumpet)

What was it like to listen from the audience in the hall during the rehearsal?

“Listening to the orchestra in the audience from the right hand side of the hall, I thought all instrument groups could be heard well, especially the last row of the woodwinds. This hall asks for exaggeration of expression. For the strings, the efforts to articulate continued to be important – but not as much as in other big halls.” Cindy Albracht (first violin)

“The sound in the (empty) hall changed depending on where I was sitting (I was only in the stalls and in block 13, directly facing the stage). It doesn’t seem like the sound necessarily corresponds with what one sees (i.e. where the different instrument groups are set out on stage), but the sound is, on the whole, very transparent, balanced, and beautiful.” Martin Piechotta (timpani)

Was there a difference in the acoustics during the rehearsal and during the concert? 
“In an empty hall, the sound seemed somehow 'trapped' in various sound clouds. But during the concert it became much better… the space between the stage and audience seemed to be remarkably warm and coalescing, neither daunting nor exposing.” Martin Piechotta (timpani) 

“The acoustics during the concert were perhaps a bit warmer with a full hall, but regardless of rehearsal or concert, the Elbphilharmonie is a wonderful hall in which to play. Sometimes, in other concert halls, the difference is so great that it’s hard to anticipate during the balance rehearsal what the sound will be like in the concert. But here, it was definitely not the case.” Annette zu Castell (first violin) 

Are the acoustics of the Elbphiharmonie and the sound of the MCO a good fit?

“The Elbphilharmonie is such an impressive concert hall. To be able to listen to the MCO – for me, one of the best orchestras in the world and whose mission I strongly support – in this hall was an experience I will remember for a long time.” Jörg Thierfelder (Board Member, MCO Foundation) 

“During the Elbphilharmonie’s opening concert, I could already imagine the sound of the MCO working well with the hall. Our concert hasn’t only fulfilled my expectations – it has gone well above and beyond. I am very happy with the result!” Michael Adick (Managing Director) 

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra returns to the Elbphilharmonie on the 29th of May 2017 with Artistic Partner Teodor Currentzis, for a programme featuring works by Iannis Xenakis, Claude Viver and Luciano Berio.