NAC unveils new acoustic shell, other upgrades to Southam Hall, le café and other spaces

Alexander Shelley leads NACO in a rehearsal with the new acoustic shell in place. Photo: Peter Robb

Christopher Millard first played his bassoon inside Southam Hall in 1972.

He has a long association with what some might have considered a dark, black hole.

“It’s no longer dark and black and it’s not a hole,” said NACO’s principal bassoonist and a member of the orchestra for the past 15 years.

The rejuvenation of the National Art Centre has been much more than the $110 million glittering glass face that is currently lighting up Elgin Street.

The rest of the renewal involves a $115 million upgrade to the performing spaces inside the centre including Southam Hall, The Babs Asper Theatre and the Azrieli Studio. Funding for these projects came from the Harper and Trudeau governments.

The biggest change is coming to Southam Hall where the orchestra makes its home. These spaces were designed and built in a relatively primitive era in terms of acoustics and lighting and the sound coming from the Southam Hall stage, at least as far as NACO itself has been concerned, has not done the world class talent of the musicians any favours.

“We invest a lot of money in our instruments. In an orchestra you’ve got millions of dollars worth of great instruments. People may not realize that the space in which you play is an extension of that instrument. That is something that has been a problem in the hall and many other spaces designed in the 1960s and ’70s in an era when acoustical science was not so advanced.”

The problem has been the disassociation, in a tactile sense, for the audience, he said. “It was always distant. You always wished that you could take all the audience members on stage so they could actually hear what the orchestra really sounded like.”

Next week’s Beethoven festival, he said, will be the first time the public will be able to experience this new Southam Hall.

“It’s the best possible outcome considering the space.”

All the players are making adjustments to the new sound in Southam Hall. Some are changing their strings.

Millard is noticing he’s not working as hard. After only a few days of rehearsal is that the orchestra is now able to produce a great rich sound with a lot less effort.

He now believes that when he plays a pianissimo (soft) note, the people in row P and further back will be able to hear it clearly. “It will give us a much larger dynamic range.” He added that he can hear better on the stage.

“It’s given me more that I expected. I’m very happy that in the last few years of my career, I will spend them on a good stage with a great conductor.”

The NAC unveiled its upgrades on Thursday to the media. The work will finally come to a conclusion in December.

Work continues in the Babs Asper Theatre. Photo: Peter Robb

Another part of the centre is also getting a facelift: le café restaurant will reopen staring with lunch on Sept.11 with new tables and chairs, lighting, booths, new carpeting and other upgrades along with a new menu created by head chef Kenton Leier based on locally sourced Canadian ingredients, including many Indigenous ingredients. Next spring, the outdoor patio of the restaurant will be unveiled with new seating.

Back inside Southam Hall the key upgrade is a massive new acoustic shell that has moved the orchestra closer to the audience and provides a beautiful brown surface that will send the sound more clearly into the room. The wood-veneered shell is expandable to allow for larger performances of, for example, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on Sept. 22 which features a beefed-up orchestra, a large choir and soloists. The shell’s panels go from stage floor to ceiling and some are movable. The ceiling, too, has been changed with lights built into three panels, made of the same material that will help reflect the music outward.

“We are about to tear the wrapping paper off the best birthday present ever,” said NAC CEO Christopher Deacon Thursday afternoon. “This spectacular new orchestra shell is one part of the architectural and production rejuvenation project. That project began with the new public spaces (in the NAC). They allow us to welcome the public in a whole new way.

Deacon, who was the general manager of NACO before being named president and CEO earlier this year, knows how important it was to rejuvenate the sound inside Southam Hall.

“Lovers of the performing arts in the region have spent many house in the seats (of Southam Hall). It may surprise some to know that Southam Hall was not designed for orchestra concerts. Essentially, this is an opera-ballet hall and this new shell will fundamentally change that.”

One of the major changes is that the orchestra now sits much closer to the audience than it has in the past, he added.

The lower part of the shell has a flat surface, while the top half features angle surfaces that will help break up ameliorate the sound.

Southam Hall has been under renovation since the summer of 2016 when new flooring, chairs and improved accessibility were added.

New chairs await the re-opening of le café. Photo: Peter Robb

Work on the shell and other improvements to the NAC was conducted by Diamond Schmitt Architects, Fisher Dachs Associates, Threshhold Acoustics and Engineering Harmonics. The shell was manufactured by Wenger & JR Clancy. It took more than 18 months to design and build and three months to install.

In the Theatre and in the Studio, upgrades were made to infrastructure including theatre lighting and audio-visual equipment. But the big change involves isolating these spaces from the outside noises that penetrated the 50 year old brutalist building.

Robin Glosemeyer Petrone is the principal at Threshold Acoustics and one of the acousticians on the project. She’s been thinking about improving the sound in Southam Hall since 2013.

First step they realized the orchestra was too far back on the stage, basically because there was no ceiling above the players at the front.

“The first step was trying to pull the orchestra into the room an engage the audience. The next thing was giving the players a supportive environment on stage so they could hear one another.” They used wood veneer panels with a honeycomb cardboard-like material behind the veneer to provide that. The materials, because they are relatively light, allow for easier movement to adapt the stage for other productions sucb as a Broadway show, she said.

The changes increase the visual intimacy and the acoustic intimacy for orchestra and audience. Higher up the acoustic panels the wood is angled. This prevents the sound from becoming too “harsh,” she said. And the new ceiling panels help send the sound out.

Glosemeyer Petrone also worked on both the Theatre and the Studio where the primary goal was to cut down the penetration of sound from the outside into the the spaces. The process is called sound isolation and that is needed more than ever because the centre has become a community place and there is more activity in places that were once silent.

The building itself, built in 1969, being mostly concrete will also transmit some sound almost like a speaker. So when a truck crosses Mackenize King Bridge you can hear it bump over some dividers, for example.

Fifty year old buildings are keeping Glosemeyer Petrone. Her firm is also working on the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Acousticians in the 21st century “want to experience the space,” she said. “We go to the concerts to be enveloped in a sound and to feel the space that we are in.”

They don’t want any hall to sound like a CD and lack a distinct character. The production rejuvenation will change the identity of Southam Hall and put the focus on the musicians, she said.

The identity of the venerable le café restaurant is also about to get a much needed makeover and a new sensibility, says Nelson Borges, the general manager of food services at the NAC.

In addition to new furniture and a new menu, Borges said, the restaurant will start actively celebrating the culinary arts.

He said the restaurant will create a stage for visiting chefs from across Canada to come. Borges and Leier will formalize a series of residencies featuring up to six chefs a year. They will do events around the chefs and the menus created will “live” for the duration of the residency.

“We want to bring in chefs from Newfoundland, from B.C.” It will be a Canada Scene festival for food.

“We have an Indigenous chef lined up for next year that will be tied in with the launch of Indigenous Theatre in the fall of 2019.”

There will be a second renovation phase, he said which will see the bar move to the centre of the restaurant, more booths and a new ceiling. The timing depends on Lawrence Freiman Lane which runs over top of the restaurant and is in need of repair because water leaks through it into the ceiling of le café. That water is drained away but, Borges said, they don’t want to put in a new ceiling with that problem hanging over their heads.

By the numbers

18 months to design and build the new orchestra shell
50 kilometres of new electrical and audio-visual conduit
88 new doors have been installed
200 kilometres of new electrical wire and audio-visual cable and fibre
225 Construction and installation workers on-site during each day this summer (average)
300 new speakers
1,000 hours of staff training on how to operate new theatrical systems and orchestra shell
1,300 new light fixtures
1,800 new lighting circuits
19,000 square-feet of veneer on orchestra shell
32,500 square-feet of isolation material to minimize sound transfer backstage

— Courtesy National Arts Centre

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.