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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Best sound man in the business

By Norman Lebrecht / August 15, 2007

Not many people can claim to be world number one (even heavyweight boxers have to split the title), but Russell Johnson, who died last week, was by universal consent the finest concerthall acoustician on earth, a man who changed not only the sound of music in walled spaces but the entire experience of listening to live performance.

‘There must be air around the music, as if the music is floating,’ he liked to say, and his signature halls tended to be a room within a room, the panelled walls adjustable at the touch of a button to deliver the perfect atmosphere for every scale of performance, solo harp to heavy metal band.

I saw Claudio Abbado’s eyes open saucer-wide when the walls of Johnson’s lake-top hall in Lucerne cracked like Jericho’s just before the finale of the Beethoven’s Ninth he was rehearsing, allowing the symphony to aspirate as never before by removing congestion of space and air. There were mouths in the audience that gaped even wider than the singers’.

‘I think he did more for the appreciation of symphonic music than anyone – composer, impresario, performer - in the last 40 years,’ says Ed Smith who, as orchestra manager, worked with Johnson on his Symphony Hall masterpiece in Simon Rattle’s Birmingham. A Johnson hall added a sense of the numinous, a detachment from everyday concerns and a silence (when empty) that was unlike any other.

Lucerne, Birmingham and Dallas were the three halls that came closest to his ideal, but Johnson left his mark on six-dozen cities, retuning the jazz space at New York’s Lincoln Center, repairing the Salle Pleyel in Paris, redeeming a concrete calamity in Toronto, putting Singapore on the symphonic map and giving Budapest the best sound in post-Communist Europe.

The one town he never touched was London where, despite urgings from Rattle and others, he was ruled out time and again by the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall bosses for reasons that have never been satisfactorily justified. ‘I could have fixed those halls,’ Russell used to grumble, but then he said that about every musical space he saw, whether school gym or Roman arena.

Of all the geniuses I have known Russell Johnson was perhaps the most naturally gifted and myopically dedicated. He lived alone all his adult life, and out of a suitcase for months on end when he was tuning a new hall in Seoul, Sao Paolo or frozen Lahti in Finland. When he failed to show up at the office last Tuesday, a colleague went round to the New York apartment and found he had died in his sleep, working at 83 to his last night on making a better environment for the making of music.

Few knew how much he was self-made. The first orchestra he heard, Russell told me, was as a soldier in uniform during fighting in the Philippines in 1945. Born and raised in Berwick, a country town in Philadelphia, his only access to grand performance was Saturday night opera from the Met on the radio. His education was meant to end with high school, before going to work like his father and grandfather in a car plant.

The war earned him a break from small-town destinies. Assigned to the Signal Corps after telling the draft board that he engineered his own recordings, he saw combat against the Japanese and his first concert on a night off in Manila. ‘I was stunned,’ he told me once over lunch (meals were his main recreation). He was hearing details in the orchestra that were beyond anyone else’s perception.

Demobbed, he put himself through college on the GI Bill, taking a degree in architecture and going into practice in New York, only to quit and invent a new profession: theatre acoustician. The shape of sound was changing. Until the war, halls were built in brick and wood, in a shoebox design with 2,000-odd seats and satisfactory acoustics. Modernism and post-War boom delivered concrete 3,500-seaters in varied forms and deadened sound. That’s where Russell came in.

Acoustic theory tended to be a mixture of musical mumbo-jumbo and trial and error. Herbert von Karajan demanded bits of green glass beneath the stage of Berlin’s Philharmonie because some had been found in the bombed-out Gewandahaus at Leipzig. At Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, cloth banners were hung from the rafters in a bid to attenuate dry sound.

Russell cut the nonsense and talked of unity: ‘musicians must hear or sense what the audience is hearing.’ He would sit for hours with the second fiddles, discussing characteristics of sound, what felt right and what not. Conductors came to trust his ears as much as their own. A British colleague ‘loved the way he would state quite clearly in early meetings that he was not ready to talk about acoustics yet.’

He preferred to work with bold architects – Cesar Pelli, I M Pei, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Haddid and, lately, London’s up-and-coming Foreign Office – and saw ear to eye with the best of them. Lucerne’s Nouvel said: ‘I am the guardian of the eye, Russ Johnson is the guardian of the ear.’

When he failed, it was usually because a weak musical management refused to back him against a rampant developer. The Verizon Hall in Philadelphia flopped on opening, much to Russell’s chagrin, and Budapest is not as warm as he wanted, though both have improved. Almost all the best sounding halls of the past 35 years are Russell Johnson’s.

He assured me that his junior rival Larry Kierkegaard would do a fine repair job on the Barbican and South Bank, as indeed he did. But a city like London should not have declined to give a hearing to the visionary of theatre acoustics. Russell Johnson left his mark on the world, London excluded.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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