Krannert Center’s Great Hall
The U of I’s new world-class concert hall
December 23, 1977
This appreciation of the Great Hall at Krannert was sparked by my visits there to listen to first-rate chamber and orchestral performances that the hall made possible. Heretofore, Illinoisans in my part of the state had to drive to Chicago or St. Louis to enjoy good music in a good hall.
America's great twentieth century concert halls can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There's the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.; the Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis; and there is the Great Hall at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana.
What the three halls have in common—besides their high reputation among musicians and concert-goers—is their acoustician. His name is Cyril M. Harris, for more than thirty years an acoustics consultant based in New York. When Harris is not consulting, he teaches and does research at Columbia University, in its schools of architecture and engineering.
Harris' latest triumph came in October of 1976 when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed for the first time in its newly remodeled home, Avery Fisher Hall in New York's Lincoln Center. Avery Fisher Hall—or Philharmonic Hall as it was known until 1973—proved an embarrassment when it opened in 1962. Though they rarely use this kind of language around Lincoln Center, its acoustics stunk. The hall's sound was harsh, uneven, thin. Five patch-up jobs and $2 million over fourteen years had not been able to fix it.
Harris was given the job of fixing Avery Fisher Hall, a chore he managed by tearing the building apart and starting over from scratch. The result, according to New York critics and audiences, was worth every one of the $5 million it cost.
The Great Hall at Krannert was the first of four such triumphs for Harris. Built with money left to the University of Illinois by cardboard box king Herman C. Krannert—a gift tactfully described at the time only as "extremely generous"—the center is an ambitiously scaled multipurpose facility. It boasts four separate theaters, (of which the Great Hall is the largest), and an outdoor amphitheater, rehearsal halls, elaborate set shops, and underground parking garages. High Fidelity magazine called it a "prairie Acropolis." It is to the serious concert-goer what the U of I’s Assembly Hall is to fans of basketball and the Ice Capades.
This Acropolis' Parthenon is the Great Hall. Designed by Max Abramovitz (a friend of Harris) with Harris as acoustics consultant, the hall seats 1,111 on the main or orchestral level with another 989 seats in the single balcony. Like Boston's Symphony Hall, or for that matter most of the great nineteenth century concert halls, the Great Hall at Krannert is shaped like a giant shoe box. This rectangular shape is common to nearly all of Harris' original designs. The hall is a single open room, with no proscenium arch to separate orchestra and audience. Smaller than some of his more recent designs (Avery Fisher Hall seats 2,742, for example, even after the scrapping of 94 seats during the remodeling) the Great Hall features a movable wall which can, by closing off the choir seats above and behind the stage, limit seating capacity by another couple of dozen seats.
The interior of the Great Hall is deceptively spare. For all its apparent simplicity of design, this 200-by-50-foot box is a surprisingly complicated place. There is not a single element in the room construction or decoration—with the possible exception of the color of the carpet—that was not chosen for its effect on the room's acoustical performance. The principal building material, to pick one example, is wood. The walls are butternut; the floors and the stage are also built of light-colored, unadorned wood strips. Wood is one of Harris' favorite materials, largely because of its ability to resonate, to capture and throw back sound waves. Both the stage and the main floor, for instance, are mounted on joists suspended over an open space, a trick Harris used again in Avery Fisher Hall, after first calming some nervous New York City fire inspectors. Its purpose, as described by the New Yorker's Bruce Bliven, Jr., is "to give the floor a certain amount of flexibility, so that it could vibrate, if only slightly, in response to the sound of the orchestra, and allow the members of the audience, with their feet on the floor, to be able to feel the music as well as hear it." At the Great Hall, you feel the music.
The balconies, too, were designed with a calculated eye toward their sound-reflecting properties. The twenty or so balcony faces are angled to bounce sound down into the main floor area and work in conjunction with the broken surfaces of the sidewalls to disperse the sound evenly throughout the hall.
But the ceiling is the most architecturally distinctive feature of the room. It is also, as might be expected, the most acoustically important feature. The ceiling is painted white plaster, one and one-half inches thick, so that it will reflect rather than absorb the sound which hits it from below. At first glance—at second glance, too, for that matter—it looks like a gigantic, crinkled piece of cellophane. Its jagged contours act to disperse sound waves, scattering them evenly across all frequencies and into all parts of the hall. The ceiling is what the architectural critics like to call a "felicitous blending of form and function"—meaning that it works and looks good, too. In one form or another, this kind of ceiling is a trademark of Harris-designed halls.
People are an integral part of Harris's designs. Sound-absorptive materials are used only sparingly; the audience balances what would be, in an empty room, a too brittle sound. So important is the concert-goer to a hall's sound, in fact, that it will sound different with a full house than it does with, say, 20 percent of its seats empty. Krannert's seats are plushly upholstered—as much for the upholstery's acoustical properties as for the comfort of the public. If a chair is left empty, the soft, fabric-covered seat, back and arms are, acoustically speaking, the next best thing to a soft-fabric-covered customer.
The audience's role in dampening the sound coming from the musicians is very real, and it is often underestimated. During the winter months, for example when people wear more and heavier clothing, many halls lose some of their brightness and clarity; their sound, perfectly good in the summer, goes a little dull when the weather turns cold. Customers who refuse to check bulky winter coats make the problem even worse; the sound is swallowed like a fat man on a featherbed. Concert-goers at the Great Hall don't merely visit the hall. In a real, measurable way, they are the hall.
To an acoustician, the sound that is produced outside a hall is as important as the sound produced inside it. Traffic noise, air conditioning, honking horns, rattling air conditioner vents, rumbling trucks are constant bugaboos. At Krannert the stage of the Great Hall was sunk below street level to minimize street noise. The hall is also separated from the common public area that serves all four theaters in the complex by its own foyer and lobby, which are carpeted. Between these public areas and each of the four theaters Harris ordered the installation of an insulating layer of sound absorptive fiberglass covered by decorative wooden strips. If a performance in the Great Hall is ruined by noise, it won't be from outside.
The result of all this fiddling is a place to hear live music that has no equal downstate. Though Krannert's designers hoped, by construction of the Festival Theater, to limit the Great Hall's use to performances of larger orchestral and/or choral works and thus avoid the need to compromise the room's acoustics, the hall is frequently used for the performance of smaller-scaled works (chamber music, recitals, and the like) that the intimate Festival Theater was intended to house. The reasons, not surprisingly, have to do with sound—in this case the sound of tinkling coins. The Great Hall seats 2,100, the Festival Theater 965. A chamber group of the caliber of the Juilliard String Quartet can sell out even the Great Hall's 2,100 seats. Architecture may bow to acoustics at Krannert, but nothing bows to the box office.
But it is a measure of the Great Hall's versatility that, though designed to accommodate (both physically and acoustically) as many as 120 musicians onstage, it can still compliment as few as four. The sound at the Great Hall, especially to those used to hearing music in places like the Springfield High School auditorium, is startling. (Springfield High School does well enough for pep rallies and the showing of sex hygiene films, but as a music hall it's a disaster.) People drive a hundred miles and more to attend concerts there, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, commonly acknowledged as one of the world's best, buses to Urbana to record there. Both agree that it's worth the trip. ●