The Music Plays On — The World’s Greatest Concert Halls

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Architect Hans Scharoun’s original sketches for the Berlin Philharmonie

As someone who has been obsessed with orchestras from a young age, I knew that the concert halls of these famous orchestras were often equally famous acoustical environments. Indeed, an orchestra’s unique and individual sound is directly tied to and shaped by the hall in which the orchestra calls home.

When I became the resident conductor the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), it was still customary for them to tour at least once a year, alternating between national and international tours. For seven years as the official “ears” for the SFS and their music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, I had the singular responsibility, and great pleasure, to listen with elephant ears and adjust the balance of one of the greatest orchestras in the world, as they rehearsed in these glorious empty halls. Hearing them then perform to a packed and appreciative audience in the evening was always very gratifying. To say that the SFS has performed in every major concert hall in the world is not an overstatement.

Also, as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO), I had the great honor of performing, recording, and conducting in many of Europe’s most famous halls, experiencing for myself what it was like to respond to the sounds these halls helped shape and create.

I will also say that there are some halls that have historical and aesthetic significance that, while their acoustics may not be world-class, to perform in them is still a great thrill and honor. Finally, an orchestra and a hall won’t make up for detached and small audience. Usually, however, a great hall is only built where there are audiences that appreciate what they’re hearing.

Here are my favorite halls that I’ve worked in, with a performance to match.

Asia

The National Concert Hall at Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Center is visually stunning inside and out. The acoustics are warm and offer a very appealing sound when sitting in the audience.

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National Concert Hall, Taipei
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National Concert Hall, Taipei

Here’s a beautiful performance of Boulez Notations for orchestra: I, VII, IV, III, II and Bruckner Symphony №7 with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Taipei’s National Concert Hall.

The Concert Hall of the Hong Kong Cultural Center is built in a theater-in-the-round style, similar to the Berlin Philharmonie. It’s acoustics are spacious and clear.

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Concert Hall — Hong Kong Cultural Center

Thank goodness for the Digital Concert Hall! Here’s a great performance of the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle conducting in Hong Kong’s Concert Hall.

Tokyo’s Suntory Concert Hall is not only considered one of the most acoustically “perfect” concert halls in the world, it is visually stunning to boot!

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Tokyo’s Suntory Concert Hall

Another performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, this time conducted by Mariss Jansons, in the amazing Suntory Hall.

North America

Unfortunately, because of the very restrictive union regulations surrounding televised and streamed concerts of symphony orchestras in the United States, there aren’t any acceptable videos to share of concerts from Carnegie Hall in New York City and Symphony Hall in Boston. So, let’s move to Europe’s great halls!

Europe

Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw is considered one of the other acoustically perfect halls in the world. Currently, you can watch a concert streamed daily from their YouTube and Facebook channels of various European orchestras that have recently performed there, as well as, of course, archival performances of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the greatest orchestras in the world.

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Concertgebouw

First, though, I’d like to share with you a recording of a live performance of Mahler’s Symphony №5, with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, that I conducted in 2015. It is a concert that feels now like a dream, but a dream in which I remember every single second.

Here’s a great performance of Bruckner’s Symphony №5 with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting. Like Great Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna, the Concertgebouw envelops the sound of any orchestra that plays in it and sends out to the listener it’s own version, making the winds chirp, and the strings sound like silk, and brass an extension of the organ sounds from above.

Berlin’s Philharmonie, the home of the august Berlin Philharmonic, is the greatest modern hall in the world. I usually don’t make such hyperbolic comments, but after having conducted in it twice, as well as hearing numerous concerts and rehearsals throughout the years, I say this without hesitation…and I’m not the only one who believes this to be true.

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Berlin Philharmonie
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Berlin Philharmonie

When it opened in the early 1960’s it’s ultra-modern design convinced many that it’s acoustics had to be inferior. However, quickly after opening, many were shocked with its incisive, yet spacious details. No matter where you sit in the hall, on stage or off, the sound of each individual instrument is emanating exactly from where that instrument is on the stage, yet there is also a degree of warmth embodying each individual sound. This remarkable acoustical achievement is amazing to experience.

From 2012, here’s another performance for which I’m so thankful was recorded and made available for purchase from SFS Media: My performance of Mahler’s Symphony №1, live from Berlin’s Philharmonie, recorded in 2012.

Designed by Jean Nouvel, Lucerne’s Concert Hall of the Kultur und Kongresszentrum Luzern (KKL) is also modern gem of a concert hall. Home to the Lucerne Festival, its acoustic is very warm and inviting, creating a beautiful aura of sound around any orchestra, similar to the Concertgebouw.

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KKL Lucerne
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KKL Lucerne

Here’s a great performance of Mahler’s Symphony №7, with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado.

And, I’ve saved the best for last. The Großer Saal (Great Hall) of Vienna’s Musikverein is the granddaddy of them all and is, in my opinion, the greatest place to see a concert of orchestral music in the world.

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Musikverein, Vienna
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Golden Hall, Musikverein

It is probably the most recognized hall in the world because every New Years Day, literally millions of viewers tune in around the world to watch annually New Year’s Day Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic. The concert hall, itself, sounds and feels like a great instrument, as if Stradivari had carved the hall out of one single beautiful piece of spruce.

To see it in all its glory, I’m leaving you with the latest New Year Concert, conducted by Andris Nelsons.

Written by

Music Director of the California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic

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