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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

of Pa­ganini.

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

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