WHAT A BLAST
MELBOURNE’S BRILLIANTLY REVAMPED HAMER HALL REOPENS WITH MUCH FANFARE THIS WEEK
WHEN Hamer Hall reopens in Melbourne on Thursday the ladies will have gained some lavatories and the gentlemen will have lost an organ. Is that a kind of gender equality? Who can say. But on the balance sheet of the Hamer Hall refurbishment — a two-year project costing $135.8 million — there are many such gains and losses. It points to the difficulty of modernising a heritage-listed building, even one just 30 years old.
Hamer Hall is Melbourne’s premier concert venue, the equivalent of Perth’s Concert Hall or the Sydney Opera House. It has a superb setting on the south bank of the Yarra, but its drum-like construction — a giant concrete bunker, really — always looked uninviting and closed to its surroundings.
In masterminding the refurbishment, Melbourne architecture firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall has opened up the building, shifted its aspect. While there’s still a front entrance on St Kilda Road, the most outward-looking spaces front the river, with views of the city. Hamer Hall has been turned around.
Inside, many of the alterations reflect the way people go to concerts. We book online, so we don’t need a huge ticket booth. We expect the full complement of food and beverage services. We don’t necessarily want to see only symphony orchestras, but also popular singers, jazz, musicians from different cultures of the world. And we certainly don’t want to be standing in a queue for 20 minutes at interval waiting for the loo. The most mundane improvement, bringing the ratio of women’s toilets to men’s to 2:1, the ‘‘ benchmark now across the world’’, will possibly be the most welcome. The number of women’s toilets has increased from 35 to a blessed 67.
Changes to the auditorium have been subtle and profound, in an attempt to improve the sound of musical performances. Brett Kelly, principal trombone with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, played at the first Hamer Hall concert in 1982 when it was called the Melbourne Concert Hall and will return for the orchestra’s homecoming next month. He describes its imperfect acoustic as producing a
‘‘ slight sense of detachment’’ between the music as performed and the experience of it.
‘‘ There were possibly some dead areas of the hall and [the audience] not getting the same sense of excitement from the musicmaking on stage,’’ he says.
Remedies range from spraying walls with a special 2.5mm render to narrowing the back of the stalls by 6m. Removing the Casavant Freres organ, admittedly in need of repair, is but another substantial alteration to Hamer Hall’s musical environment.
Hamer Hall’s facelift is the latest upgrade to the avenue of cultural institutions — the National Gallery of Victoria and the Arts Centre, comprising the spired Theatres Building and Hamer Hall — along St Kilda Road at Southbank.
The site has long been a place for culture and leisure, variously occupied by the Wurundjeri people, the Wirth Bros Circus, a Japanese tea house and pleasure gardens. By the 1940s, though, the area was derelict, and among the proponents in favour of it becoming a place for cultural edification were Keith Murdoch, managing director of the Herald and Weekly Times, and president of the board of trustees that ran the state gallery, library and museums.
Roy Grounds was appointed architect for the site in 1959 and drew up a scheme based on solid geometric forms.
Seen from the air, the NGV would have a solid rectangular footprint, with the triangle of the former art school (now offices) behind. To the right, under a soaring copper spire, would be the circular performing arts centre. Unrealistically, this building would have to accommodate a lyric theatre, concert hall and drama theatres. Eventually the venues were separated into what is now the oval-shaped Theatres Building (including the State Theatre used for ballet and opera) and the Concert Hall (Hamer Hall) in the architectural form of a drum.
The NGV building was the first to open, in 1968, followed by the Concert Hall in 1982 and the Theatres Building in 1984.
The old-look Hamer Hall, as many will remember, was entered from St Kilda Road and once the visitor was enveloped by John Truscott’s sumptuous interior, sunshine, river views and the Melbourne cityscape were left pretty well outside.
‘‘ The building was set back from the street and there was one point of entry,’’ says architect Ian McDougall, a founding director of Ashton Raggatt McDougall. ‘‘ One of the most radical things about the building redevelopment is that we’ve actually made Hamer Hall face the river. You can now get in from the river edge and there’s a promenade along there now, connecting with the promenade along the Yarra.’’
ARM — which also designed the Melbourne Recital Centre and MTC Theatre a few blocks away — has kept the structural form of Grounds’s drum design but added new elements, including a terrace and public-access areas on the river side.
The sculptural form of the riverfront area, McDougall says, has its origin in Grounds’s unrealised snake-like design for the Hamer Hall floors and in Clement Meadmore’s outdoor sculpture near the river. ‘‘ We’ve taken the Dervish by Clement Meadmore as a sort of modern-art snake and woven it through that terrace, and the weaving-through actually cuts those holes in the shopfront. It makes the big curvy spaces where you come in.’’
After enduring construction delays, cost blow-outs and changes to his masterplan, Grounds suffered further indignity when his designs for the Theatres Building and Concert Hall were rejected as ‘‘ not in tune with a really classy, public building’’. (Grounds, who died in 1981, did not see the opening of either venue.)
The designer brought in to complete the interiors was an inspired and expensive choice: John Truscott, the Melbourne-born theatre
designer and double Academy Award winner for his work on the film Camelot.
‘‘ John had this amazing ability to create a feeling of excitement and splendour and anticipation,’’ recalls Frank Van Straten, who formerly ran the Performing Arts Museum at the Arts Centre. ‘‘ He commissioned the artworks as well, including the magnificent collection of Nolans. He convinced Nolan to donate that.’’
Truscott brought a certain fabulousness to the Arts Centre project. He set up camp nearby at the former YMCA, where he made scale models of various interior designs for the Theatres Building and Concert Hall. His decor for the Concert Hall foyer areas was like a swanky men’s club, with plush carpets, deep sofas and polished railings. The walls were upholstered leather panels. A shimmering light sculpture by Michel Santry, Arcturus, descended through a five-level atrium.
In the auditorium, Truscott wanted the walls to resemble the striations of a rockface and had them handpainted to create that effect. Moulded geometric shapes on the walls would resemble the facets of crystalline minerals.
Not all of Truscott’s design has survived the refurbishment. To make way for new public spaces and ease of movement through the foyers — exit times from Hamer Hall will be cut from 17 to 10 minutes — some original details and artworks have not been returned, including Arcturus and Nolan’s 220-panel
Paradise Garden. Truscott’s interiors have been largely retained, the Arts Centre says, in the third and fourth level foyers.
‘‘ On all of those levels, you’d be struggling to know what was original and what wasn’t,’’ McDougall says. ‘‘ We’ve moved panels around and recarpeted in original carpet. We’ve got [Truscott’s] samples book that he put original materials in. When we’re working in the existing Truscott areas we use that to make sure we can source the original colours. Likewise, in the main auditorium, even though we’ve changed the shape of the room in a subtle way, we’ve got the original scenic artists to come back and do the wall painting.’’
The auditorium has splendid new seats, high-backed and slightly wider than before, covered with a bright orange upholstery. But apart from patrons’ bottom-line comfort, the purpose of the most significant alterations has been to improve the experience of music.
The acoustic of a concert hall is the difficult-to-define quality that relates to the behaviour of soundwaves and in practice means that music sounds as was intended in the room. This is a highly subjective area, but musicians and experts nevertheless describe in similar terms Hamer Hall’s acoustic shortcomings. In unamplified performances — such as a symphony orchestra — they say it’s as if a veil or some obstruction is preventing the full musical energy produced on stage from reaching the audience.
Modern concert halls, however, increasingly are asked to satisfy a wide range of users: not only symphony orchestras but rock bands and other groups that use amplification. Hamer Hall has been fitted with a
‘‘ tech zone’’ — with lighting rigs, sound systems and all the apparatus of modern production — that can accommodate those needs. It includes a specially constructed acoustic reflector that will unfold over the stage for unamplified performances, helping to direct soundwaves out into the auditorium. The reflector replaces those clear plastic discs that used to fly above the stage like spaceships.
‘‘ This hall has to operate as much more than a concert hall — but it has to be the best concert hall in the world,’’ says Jim Hultquist, a consultant with theatre planners Schuler Shook, which has been working on the project. ‘‘ It could be a contradictory brief. It’s often very hard to do, to create a multipurpose room. But in the case of Hamer, symphonic came first. It was the big driver for everything. Orchestral music had to be better than it was previously.’’
To allow a better flow of acoustic energy, the walls at the back of the stalls have been brought in by 3m on each side, and the
‘‘ arms’’ of the balcony — including four rows of seats — have been removed.
‘‘ The room is opened and you have energy, you don’t have to lean into it,’’ says Chicagobased acoustician Lawrence Kirkegaard, who has been working on Hamer Hall with local firm Marshall Day Acoustics. Another factor affecting the sound in the hall was Truscott’s gem-shaped wall details, whose angled facets, Kirkegaard says, were enough to scatter soundwaves as a ‘‘ high-frequency staccato, broken into little bits and pieces’’.
Being a key element of Truscott’s subterranean theme, the crystalline wall shapes were not allowed to be removed by order of Heritage Victoria. They remain but have been treated with a special acoustic render and then repainted in the original colours. ‘‘ All we could do was neutralise them and spray on a very thin material that took out the fingernailon-chalkboard sound,’’ Kirkegaard says.
In situations such as these, developers must always strike a balance between heritage concerns and modernisation. Some of those who were involved in the Arts Centre since its construction, such as Van Straten, are disappointed that more of the original features could not be retained.
Judith Isherwood, chief executive of the Arts Centre since 2009 and who has overseen the Hamer Hall redevelopment, addresses the problem head-on.
‘‘ The building has been much loved by the people of Melbourne and the Truscott interiors are one of the defining things of the Arts Centre,’’ she says. ‘‘ They are areas where we have had to do some quite significant interventions into the fabric of the building.
‘‘ The danger is that you either try to replicate the old, and you never quite do it right, or you end up with something that’s such a contrast. One of the reasons we are pleased with this redevelopment is that the old and the new are incredibly complementary. We’re not hiding the fact that new is new.’’
WHEN Melbourne Concert Hall opened on November 6, 1982, it was with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hiroyuki Iwaki in a program heavily weighted towards Britain and empire: music by British composers Arthur Bliss and Benjamin Britten, and Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. Pianist Geoffrey Tozer, the prodigy who had made his concert debut with the MSO at age eight, played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme
The opening concerts for Hamer Hall this month and next point to the shift in musical taste — or at least the democratisation of official pomp — in the intervening four decades. In the gala opening, popular singers K.D. Lang, Lior and Archie Roach will share the bill with cabaret stars Caroline O’Connor and Eddie Perfect, and an operatic contingent headed by statuesque soprano Rachelle Durkin. Half of the tickets for the July 26 concert, and a repeat performance the following evening, have been allocated by state-wide ballot: the Arts Centre received more than 11,000 entries.
The MSO makes its homecoming with a series of three concerts in August under former chief conductor Markus Stenz. (For the duration of Hamer Hall’s closure, the MSO was without a chief conductor; it has recently named Englishman Andrew Davis its chief conductor from next year.)
Stenz says he is delighted to return to the venue and orchestra he led from 1998 to 2004, saying that those years were formative ones when he gave his first performances of many concert works that are now part of his repertoire.
The pieces he has chosen look like heavyhitters of high romanticism — Mahler’s third symphony, followed in the second concert by Act I from Wagner’s Die Walkure — but as Stenz points out, they are linked by themes of springtime and renewal. The entire third concert, in a nod to Stenz’s ‘‘ Act 3’’ concert closers — in which a mystery piece was included at the end of the advertised program — will be a surprise.
‘‘ That I think is a wonderfully designed program for reopening my beloved Hamer Hall,’’ Stenz says.
Stenz was among those who understood the hall’s acoustic deficiencies and felt that something should be done. He describes the experience of conducting a symphony there and feeling that 5-10 per cent of its impact was missing.
‘‘ The sound that reaches the audience, the rainbow colours, the sequence of overtones — that adds up to the whole acoustic picture,’’ Stenz says.
‘‘ If some of that only reaches the audience filtered through a veil, then some of the beautiful efforts on stage are lost.’’
Brett Kelly, the MSO trombonist, recently performed with the orchestra in an acoustic test concert, and reports the sound being generous, warm, present. Even very soft playing was projected clearly.
Several weeks ago, he also gave his trombone a solo test-drive in the new-looking, new-sounding Hamer Hall. Not overstating things, he says: ‘‘ It sounded rather good.’’
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Brett Kelly, part of Hamer Hall history since 1982, praises its new, generous sound
Artist’s impression of Hamer Hall exterior, top; art director John Truscott, above
Clockwise from above, Roy Grounds; Hamer Hall being built; Markus Stenz