On May 23, 2009, the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra (HSO) performed for the first time in its new home, the Blue Ridge Conference Hall on the Flat Rock campus of Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC). On the previous Tuesday, the press was invited to attend a rehearsal, at which HSO Music Director Thomas Joiner, HSO board president Don Hupe, BRCC president Molly Parkhill and BRCC vice-president David Hutto provided details about the collaboration of the orchestra with the college during the architectural preparation and construction of the new space.
The space is called a “conference hall,” a name that immediately telegraphs that it will be a compromise multi-purpose facility intended to house meetings, banquets, corporate functions and charity auctions as well as concerts. The good news is that the acoustics are quite good. The compromises show up in lighting, air conditioning and sight lines, and not in the acoustics.
Not only is the new space a major acoustic improvement over the previous venues (Hendersonville High School’s auditorium and First Baptist Church’s sanctuary), but also it is an operational improvement for the orchestra’s musicians and management. Rehearsals now use the same space as the performance. There is a concert Steinway on stage, adequate storage space on campus, and simplified orchestra logistics.
During the rehearsal, members of the press were permitted to evaluate the acoustics, prowl the hall and even visit the stage. I chose to sit in the woodwind section and reminisce about playing clarinet in the Manitoba Schools Orchestra many years ago. The stage acoustics that I experienced in the new hall allow musicians to hear each other, enabling the tightness of ensemble that was previously achieved by the HSO only when they travelled to the Porter Center (Brevard) or the Peace Center (Greenville, SC).
The hall acoustics are also very good, better than I had hoped for in a multipurpose space. An acoustical engineer retained by Mr. Hutto positioned sound absorbing panels after the hall was completed and the floor carpeted, and this final tuning of the hall’s acoustics left no quirky problems anywhere. The orchestra sounds more integrated if you sit at least six rows back, but that is true of many halls. The hall is live, but the decay characteristics are good and I could not detect any resonances.
That is not to say that the new space is perfect. The flat auditorium floor leads to poor sight lines. A single riser (for percussion and brass) might be accommodated, but two risers might destroy the stage acoustics since the shell above the stage is rather low. There is too much air conditioning noise. Perhaps the orchestra should chill the hall before performances and at intermissions, then run the a/c on a low setting during concerts to minimize the air handling.
Hendersonville, after an audacious initiative to support a new downtown concert hall, has abandoned the proposed Mill Center for the Arts (and its dramatic architecture, which excited some of us but was unpalatable to more conservative tastes). A revamped committee has now adopted a position of study and retrenchment. I do not expect to see a dedicated concert hall appropriate for orchestras and other large ensembles built in Hendersonville in my lifetime. So logic tells me to rejoice that the Blue Ridge Community College and the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra in close collaboration have ensured that the multipurpose Blue Ridge Conference Hall was designed and built with very good acoustics. It will make our concert experiences more enjoyable.