Saturday, August 11, 2007

Acoustician/Concert Hall Designer Russell Johnson

August 10, 2007
Russell Johnson, Who Transformed the Sound in Concert Halls, Dies at 83

Russell Johnson, who combined architectural training, a love of music and acute intuition to revolutionize the quality of sound in hundreds of the world’s concert halls, each of which he regarded as a complex, unique instrument, died on Aug. 7 at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.

Tateo Nakajima, managing director of Artec Consultants, the firm that Mr. Johnson founded in 1970 and at which he worked until he died, confirmed the death.

Mr. Johnson prescribed the acoustic design of concert halls from Dallas to Birmingham, England, to Jazz at Lincoln Center to Lucerne, Switzerland, often working with the world’s leading architects. The concert hall he designed for the small Finnish city of Lahti helped elevate its orchestra and its annual Sibelius Festival to prominence.

After the Scottish Chamber Orchestra visited the Lucerne Concert Hall, completed in 1999, a reviewer for The Glasgow Herald called the sound “so elegant and dreamy it makes the head reel,” saying it testified to “the genius of Russell Johnson.”

Jean Nouvel, the architect who received accolades for designing the Lucerne building, said in an interview with The New York Times in 1998: “I am the guardian of the eye, Russ Johnson is the guardian of the ear.”

Mr. Johnson’s design for Jazz at Lincoln Center was intended to conjure the “golden sound” that Wynton Marsalis, the center’s music director, said he wanted. Mr. Johnson did this by working with architects and others to build a soundproof box inside a bigger box.

At the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, his solution included a movable over-the-stage canopy, around-the-room reverberation chambers that can be opened and closed in combinations, and sound-absorptive adjustable curtains.

After decades when few new concert halls were built and old ones were seldom retuned for sound quality, there was a post-war boom in creating and remaking them. But successful outcomes were so spotty that Mr. Johnson found that musicians and concertgoers considered acousticians to be practitioners of a phony art and a failed science.

“I found that as soon as I told musicians I was an acoustician, they wanted to wring my neck,” he said in an interview with The Financial Times in 1997.

Mr. Johnson helped revolutionize the profession with new movable and often automatic technology that can create different environments for different groups. Perhaps most important, he persuaded many owners and architects to return to the basic shape and dimensions of beloved older halls like the Musikverein in Vienna, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and Symphony Hall in Boston. All are shoebox-shaped and relatively small.

“I believe that you cannot, should not, design opera houses and concert halls for the next century unless you really understand the last three centuries of the design of this type of building,” he said in an interview with The National Post, a Canadian newspaper, in 2002.

Mr. Johnson’s first task was often persuading owners to give him priority over the architect, who was sometimes reluctant to build around Mr. Johnson’s reiteration of the classic concepts he thought necessary to achieve superb sound. The National Post quoted Clint Kuschak, who was general manager of the community auditorium in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and oversaw its building, as saying “We wanted the grand theater, and he wanted something that worked.”

Mr. Johnson strove to achieve four acoustic qualities: loudness, warmth, clarity and reverberation, meaning the after-ring as a sound slowly tapers into silence. The result, he said, “must be air around the music, as if the music is floating.”

Frederick Russell Johnson was born in Berwick, Pa., on Sept. 14, 1923, and was in the children’s choir of his church. He climbed into the pipe organ there to see how it worked, The National Post reported. When he was 12 or 13, he began listening to opera broadcasts on the radio. By 15, he wanted to be a recording engineer and make classical albums.

After Army service, he studied architecture at what is now Carnegie Mellon University and then transferred to Yale, from which he graduated. From 1954 to 1970, he worked for Bolt, Beranek and Newman in Cambridge, Mass., an acoustical consulting firm. In 1970, he started his own company, which has since completed more than 2,000 projects.

Mr. Johnson is survived by his sister, Barbara Johnson Mansfield, of Vienna, Va.

Unlike many acousticians, Mr. Johnson did not believe designing space for sound is susceptible to scientific approaches and preferred to call what he did an art.

“The math today may not help you very much,” he told The New York Times in 2000. “And if you believe some math that’s wrong, you can get into trouble very quickly.”

But he did believe in the overriding importance of silence, telling The Times in 1998 that “you have to work very carefully to get the silence right.”

He added, “The acoustician builds his signature on that silence.”

No comments: