Classical Music World: Concert Hall Tours

By ANN MCLAUGHLIN, Artistic Director
Los Alamos Concert Association

I don’t really have a bucket list, but I’d like to hear as many of the world’s great orchestras in their home halls as I can before my expiration date rolls around. My husband Bill and I try to take in concerts when we travel and enjoy guided tours of the halls as well.

On two visits to Amsterdam in the last couple of years, we have attended performances in the storied Royal Concertgebouw, a hall famed for its fine acoustic qualities. I had always imagined that this hall would be as lavish as the word “royal” implies, but on a tour our guide told us quite a different story.

The Netherlands does not have a long and distinguished musical history. When, in 1881, a group of Dutch businessmen decided that it was time for Amsterdam to have a real concert hall, there were not enough trained musicians in the city to make up an orchestra.

With great optimism, they purchased a plot of inexpensive meadow land well out of the city center. Next, they announced a design competition.The design ultimately chosen was precisely the cost-effective blueprint they had hoped for. It was created by a gentleman whose previous magnum opus was a large stable.

The hall was then constructed with all the frugality these Dutchmen could bring to bear. The seating area is flat, not raked as in most halls, and was thus much less costly to build. The décor consists of off-the-shelf plaster embellishments purchased much as one might buy items at IKEA so there were no expensive artisans to pay.

To this day, the hall is operated without state support, an anomaly among European concert halls. Our guide took us to see the huge space directly above the hall with what she called “holes for rent”. These are openings in the ceiling that can be leased by radio stations and recording companies to drop microphones into the hall.

I was particularly interested in the green rooms where artists relax (or pace) prior to performances. It was reassuring to find that these rooms are not much more lavish than the green room in our own Smith Auditorium except that they all have good pianos and padded leather doors. We noticed that an upcoming concert would feature pianist Jeremy Denk who performed in the Los Alamos Concert Association series in 2013. It was nice to know that his back-stage experience at the Smith compared favorably with what he would find at the Royal Concertgebouw.

If you would like to tour a great concert hall, one of the most splendid is an easy flight away: the Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Designed by Frank Gehry, its swooping titanium exterior is a dramatic contrast to the all-wood interior. Attending a concert there is like being inside of a giant wooden musical instrument. The acoustics are astounding, the visual experience fantastic and, of course, the Los Angeles Philharmonic under maestro Gustavo Dudamel is second to none. A tour of one of this century’s great architectural achievements is a thrill in itself.

Our Duane Smith Auditorium can’t compete with the great concert halls of the world in terms of that architectural wow factor, but the artists who perform there certainly can. The artists and ensembles that the Los Alamos Concert Association presents have made names for themselves in great halls all over the world.

A prime example is violin super star Joshua Bell who will perform here Feb. 3. Watch for my next column where I’ll give you my theory on why this great artist is willing to come to Los Alamos.