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Acoustician changed the sounds of music

Russell Johnson, 83, the acclaimed acoustician who designed sound for the homes of many of the world's great orchestras - including Philadelphia's - died Tuesday in New York City, his firm announced.

Russell Johnson , Verizon Hall soundscape designer.
Russell Johnson , Verizon Hall soundscape designer.Read more

Russell Johnson, 83, the acclaimed acoustician who designed sound for the homes of many of the world's great orchestras - including Philadelphia's - died Tuesday in New York City, his firm announced.

Mr. Johnson, widely admired for his work on orchestra halls in Dallas; Lucerne, Switzerland; and, perhaps most of all, Birmingham, England, died at his apartment after working Monday at his firm, said Tateo Nakajima, Artec Consultants' managing director.

"We were discussing design ideas and planning for the future," Nakajima said, "and as far as we can tell, he went home from work and just didn't wake up."

Mr. Johnson founded his design studio in 1970 in New York but was more often seen listening to concerts in Miami, Singapore, or one of the dozens of other cities in which he designed halls. After the 2001 opening of Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center, he took an apartment near Broad and Spruce Streets for several months, attending night after night of concerts to get the sound just right.

His specialty within a specialty was adjustable acoustics, a rare if not unique design philosophy, and he equipped orchestra halls with hardware that moves to suit a particular concert or even a particular piece on the program - one configuration for a delicate Strauss wind serenade, another for a bombastic Strauss tone poem.

Continual moving of motorized acoustical doors and rising and lowering sound canopies over the stage are features of some Johnson halls, but not Philadelphia's, and in the months and years after the Kimmel's opening - and in the face of harsh reviews - Philadelphia Orchestra officials sought a single setting that might sound best.

But to Mr. Johnson's credit, while constant changeability proved impractical in Philadelphia, much of the criticism of the hall only proved his theories. He had said a smaller hall would produce better sound, but economic considerations (more seats mean more revenue) pushed the capacity to 2,500. Mr. Johnson argued for better materials than were eventually used.

And he could not be held responsible for the fact that when it opened in December 2001, Verizon Hall was far from finished.

"The sound was distant and small and lacked presence," wrote Andrew Druckenbrod, music critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of an opening concert late in 2001. "The audience should be swimming in the lushness of Ravel's Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloé, but we were parched."

Second thoughts

But work on the hall continued after opening weekend, and many critics were impressed on their second visits.

"Sitting in the first tier," the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed wrote in 2003, "I felt as though that violin was hovering magically in the air all around me. Nothing came between the beautiful sounds these musicians made and my ears. When a high gong or triangle was struck very softly, its golden shimmer gave me goose bumps."

Artec itself has expressed frustration with Verizon Hall's sound. Three years after opening night, Artec issued a Kimmel-commissioned study revealing that major work was needed to overcome serious acoustical problems. The hall suffers from a "low level of reverberance" and a "relatively low level of impact of the orchestral sound," it said.

The firm recommended remedies, but they were never acted upon.

The Verizon Hall problems are a function of execution, not design, said former Philadelphia Orchestra president Joseph H. Kluger, part of the team that hired Mr. Johnson twice, first when the hall was to have been designed by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, and again when the project was reconfigured and awarded to the firm headed by Rafael Viñoly.

Kluger said the decision to hire Artec, which meant signing on to the philosophy of adjustable acoustics, was made because of Mr. Johnson's record of success, and in the context of the times.

"Our intention as clients," he said, "was to minimize the need for the kind of acoustical renovations that plagued Avery Fisher Hall and have caused it to be renovated four times. . .. You can argue about whether or not it has met everyone's expectations, but I would say that not only is it a very good-sounding hall, but the ability to adjust it after it opened [has resulted in] a very much better hall than after it opened."

Born Sept. 14, 1923, in Berwick, Pa., Mr. Johnson studied architecture at Carnegie Mellon and Yale Universities, and in 1954 went to work for another leading acoustician, Bolt, Beranek and Newman - Avery Fisher Hall's acoustician - before starting his own firm.

He loved talking, in rather baroque terms, about theories of acoustics - a tricky field hovering between art and science that anticipates how sound behaves and what hardware is necessary to shape it - especially if the theories in question were his.

Kluger, who worked with Mr. Johnson for more than 15 years, called him "insufferable" because "he was certain in what he wanted in the design process, sometimes unwilling to explain why he wanted something, and again unwilling or incapable of telling you what the consequences were of not doing it."

For all Mr. Johnson's personal force, Kluger said that, in the case of cheaper materials being used in the acoustical doors of Verizon Hall, he wished Mr. Johnson had been more forceful.

"The design was complete and included use of certain materials, and later in the process changes were made, and nobody knows who made those decisions.. . . Russell was aware that those material changes were made and was unhappy about it [but] didn't scream loud enough.

"I wish he had screamed louder. We never knew about it at all," he said, until much later.

A legacy

Mr. Johnson was an indefatigable self-promoter, sending positive reviews to newspaper critics with hand-scribbled notes, and could be quite charming. His firm designed the soundscapes of dozens of halls, including Jazz at Lincoln Center and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

More recently, Artec was acoustician for the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, Calif., and the two-hall Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, which opened last fall.

Kimmel officials say they have no imminent plans for acoustical work at Verizon Hall.

Even so, Kluger said yesterday: "In my opinion Verizon Hall as it sounds today - and when further refinements are made as I hope they will be - will end up being part of Russell Johnson's legacy to concert-hall design, and rank among his best works of art along with Lucerne and Birmingham."

Mr. Johnson is survived by a sister, Barbara Johnson Mansfield, and her children, John F., David R. and Suzanne Mansfield, of Vienna, Va. A funeral will held be in Berwick on Aug. 18. A memorial service will be in New York later.

Read an interview with Russell Johnson on his work at Verizon Hall and an evaluation of the hall's acoustics, and see other projects by his firm at