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Russell Johnson.

Labor Day, 1985, a week before the dedication ceremonies for Calgary's Jack Singer Hall, was another hand-holding session for Russell Johnson, founder of New York-based acoustician and theatre planner, Artec Consultants. Conductor Mario Bernardi and the Calgary Philharmonic players were tense. The upper strings were struggling to articulate the feathery passagework of the "Queen Mab scherzo" from Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet because the new hall's bass-rich reverberance was schmeering it to mush. As Johnson approached the podium, Bernardi wheeled around: "We may as well be playing in the bathroom. The brass can't hear the strings and everything echoes."


Instead of shrivelling with humiliation, Johnson gave a knowing, avuncular smile, learned after 33 years of these initiation rites. "Mario, why don't you ask the musicians to move closer?" They did. Next, he deployed heavy, sound-absorbing drapes concealed in closets along the sidewalls and ceiling slots; stagehands adjusted choir-loft baffles. By break, Bernardi was chatting amiably with Johnson about a recent European engagement. Cocking an eyebrow at his assistant, Johnson said, "I hope you noticed that Mario didn't say a single word about the acoustics. That's the best possible sign."

Johnson, considered by many to be the world's best acoustician, died unexpectedly at his home in Manhattan on August 7. He was 83.

A Yale-trained architect, he created some 40 concert halls in this country, from Vancouver to St. John's. During one heady six-month period in 1997, six Artec halls opened in Canada: Chan Centre, Vancouver; Surrey Centre, Surrey, BC; Winspear Centre, Edmonton; River Run Centre, Guelph, ON; Living Arts Centre, Mississauga, ON; and the Royal Conservatory of Music's Ettore Mazzoleni Concert Hall in Toronto.

These facilities share the distinctive Artec sound, which is reverberant yet clear. This breaks the traditional rules. "It's the one thing that really surprises musicians when they walk into an Artec hall," Johnson said in an interview. "They 'know' it can't be done, so they're really shook up when they hear it."

In Toronto, Roy Thomson Hall's management was humiliated about 20 years ago when Angel-EMI took the Toronto Symphony to Kitchener to record Messiah in the Artec-designed Centre in the Square. Johnson was later to square the circle, so to speak, when he renovated RTH. He reduced its bloated volume (about twice that of such classic halls as Vienna's Grosser Musikvereinsaal and Boston's Symphony Hall) by partially filling in the circular shell to make it more rectangular. Never content to rest on a formula, Johnson liked to introduce some new tweak with each succeeding project. The Winspear Centre's walls, for instance, introduced microshaping. The walls have a subtle rough texture that helps diffuse high-frequency energy. Mississauga's pebbly-looking concrete walls serve the same purpose.

Some of his early halls were turkeys, such as Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre, his first major project, which dates from 1955. As a cost-cutting measure, the ceiling was placed 20 feet lower than he had recommended. "The architects ignored almost everything I told them. Acousticians had very little influence on architects from 1946 to 1975; we were treated quite like butlers, chambermaids and the help in the kitchen."

Though Johnson was touted as the acoustician for the opera house the Canadian Opera Company was planning to build in the early 1990s, he was not directly involved in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened to great acclaim last year. But his influence was felt nonetheless since that building's acoustician, Robert Essert, had worked with Johnson at Artec for the better part of two decades.
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Title Annotation:Artists on Stage
Author:Lasker, David
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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