Acoustically speaking, the most striking sound emanating from Verizon Hall these days is silence. At nearly six years old, Philadelphia's orchestra hall is still troublesome, and its many stewards are quiet on the question of whether a solution is in the works.
So is this it? Is the hall's sound fixed in its not-quite-good-enough state? Will Verizon Hall ever achieve the greatness planners promised, and, if so, does anyone have the wits, will and musical authority to get it there?
The owner, the Kimmel Center, now has word from two top acousticians that Verizon - the fruit of an off-and-on 90-year struggle to build an acoustically superior orchestral venue - is not what it should be.
"It needs help," Chicago acoustician R. Lawrence Kirkegaard said recently after the Kimmel had solicited his opinion. "The building, the orchestra, the city, the donors, the future generations of listeners all deserve something better than what's there in acoustic terms. There's a weakness that should not be the case for a major orchestra in an important hall."
Far from embracing this as the most important issue of her nascent tenure, Kimmel president Anne Ewers' first reaction to this news was to say that she has "never even heard the Philadelphia Orchestra in the hall" - she arrived in July - "and in my estimation there is no direction at this point."
Musicians are not agitating for a solution. An orchestra spokeswoman says a new-hall committee has not met in so long it's considered dormant. Players are much more absorbed at the moment with personnel issues, the music-director search and negotiating a new contract.
Outgoing music director Christoph Eschenbach has one more year in Philadelphia - this season, which opens Thursday night - and seems unlikely to develop a sudden interest in making acoustics his cause.
Orchestra president James Undercofler in a way uttered the most trenchant, and damning, observation yet. He said last month that his opinion of Verizon Hall was that "in general it's quite good. It's just that some places are as good as any hall in the world, and in other places you would want it to be better."
Philadelphia spent well over $265 million on a new orchestral showplace, and what we got was a hall that we want to be better.
And you have to wonder where the critics who have praised the hall were sitting - and how the rest of us can get those seats. (The Inquirer's critics this year have requested a change in their seats, from the orchestra level to the first tier.)
Kirkegaard's evaluation did not make recommendations for how to correct Verizon's problems, but a previous study, by Artec, the hall's original acoustician, said a remedy would involve enormous technical difficulties and cost. The major recommendation was to replace the more than 100 doors leading to the acoustical chamber surrounding the hall.
Acoustics is a somewhat subjective matter, but not nearly as subjective as some of the Kimmel's apologists have suggested. The basic questions are:
Is the orchestral sound clear - that is, free of distortion?
Are the orchestra's various sections balanced with one another so that any one player or section can be heard when wanting to be heard?
Is the sound reasonably similar no matter where you sit in the hall?
Do quiet passages project adequately, and, conversely, does the sound buckle or bloom when 120 musicians are playing at full volume?
Is there a healthy amount of resonance, so that sounds are granted a pleasant afterlife in the hall once they leave their source?
After six years of hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra and perhaps a dozen others in Verizon, the hall to me seems strangely inconsistent. It has sounded fine in most places on most nights, awful in a few places on a very few nights, wonderful only from the first tier in certain repertoire under certain conductors.
It's not a hall that's forgiving when an ensemble is slightly out of sync, and musicians often complain that they can't hear each other from one side of the stage to the other. It sounds better with 60 musicians on stage than with 105.
In short, under a conductor with an absolutely legible beat pattern, in an early Beethoven symphony the orchestra has played often, heard from the first tier, Verizon Hall is as good as Suntory in Tokyo or Meyerson in Dallas.
Unfortunately, that's not quite enough.
It's important that musicians on stage hear themselves and each other, and the Kimmel has made much of quotes from visiting soloists who have liked the way they sound on stage. Violinist Hilary Hahn said that Verizon "produces such a beautiful sound that I felt like it was a huge extension of my instrument."
Pretty words. But musicians also raved about the way they sounded on stage in the Academy of Music. The problem in that beautiful old hall was that their great sound stayed on stage, and not enough got out into the audience - which was, after all, paying to hear it. Thus the long-recognized need for a new hall, which Verizon was supposed to satisfy.
When a cultural organization is pretending a problem does not exist, the reasons usually lead to money. Both the orchestra and the Kimmel are in the midst of big campaigns - the orchestra is seeking $125 million for endowment, and the Kimmel, $100 million or more for a combination of endowment and debt reduction. You don't want people saying bad things about you when you're out asking for $10 million donations. It's just not helpful.
But the paucity of public discussion about the Kimmel also is representative of a larger trend locally, in which arts and culture have become a subsidiary of tourism. Arts = tourist dollars, so don't say anything that would lead visitors to believe that what we have is anything less than "world class."
The irony here of course is that the city does have a cultural asset that competes on a world stage, and that's the Philadelphia Orchestra. Undercofler is right; Verizon is a good hall. What the city deserves is a hall as great as its orchestra - and it doesn't have one yet.
Will it ever? Or will Verizon muddle along for a decade or more at its current merely acceptable level as other priorities take precedence?
If everyone agrees that Verizon can be better, let's quickly get on with the business of finding out how and what it will cost.
There are other possibilities, I suppose. One prominent orchestra board member has suggested that the orchestra move back into the Academy of Music, its home for a century. I assume he was joking. But it's an idea that could work. Move the orchestra back into the Academy - but just until renovations are finished in Verizon Hall, Take Two.