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The Jewel of Dallas: A New World-Class Concert Hall

In sight and sound, the Meyerson Symphony Center aspires to rival the old halls of Europe. ARCHITECTURE

FOR the concert-going public of Dallas, the question asked while they watched their new concert hall being built was: Can anything new be made to sound like two of the most venerated old concert halls of Europe? The mandate given to acoustician Russell Johnson and architect I.M. Pei was to build something that sounded like the best of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna.

Naturally, it had to be distinctive looking as well - nothing but a 24-karat hall. And distinctive it is - a jewel of a wood-and-limestone interior, with sound that is fundamentally excellent.

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To these ears, in fact, it is one of the few truly successful new halls on the continent, and when the fine-tuning has been finished, it should rank with the best - not exactly the Concertgebouw or Boston's Symphony Hall (my favorite one this side of the Atlantic) - but special in its own, unique way.

The hall is named after Morton H. Meyerson, former president of Texas billionaire Ross Perot's Electronic Data Systems - at the insistence of Perot, who gave over $10 million to make the project happen. The music chamber, as the auditorium itself is called, is named after Eugene McDermott, also in honor of a $10 million donation.

The Meyerson is crammed with nooks, balconies, and arches bearing the names of other Dallas luminaries, some chiseled into a ``wall of honor'' over the staircase that sweeps up from the box office/car entrance below the street level.

Every penny has been desperately needed to pay the bills on a project that began at an estimated $49.5 million but has now risen to over $86 million ($157 million, according to a city auditor's report, if one includes land, parking garage, park, and financing).

The story of how the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center came to fruition would read like engrossing fiction. Though this civic and private-enterprise partnership was first proposed in 1978, ground was not broken until 1983, and construction didn't actually begin for another 2 1/2 year.

The collapse of the oil market threatened to scuttle the hall several times; potentially serious disagreements broke out between architect Pei (who was designing his first theater) and acoustician Johnson, though they now profess to be mutually respectful colleagues. Cost overruns became gut-wrenchingly steep.

Eventually the city came under fire for supporting so lavish a project for so small a part of the city's constituency when there were homeless on the streets. But the results are remarkable: Dallas's desire to build a world-class facility for its orchestra has come stunningly to fruition. Pei's exterior is a severe cement and glass structure that takes on its natural grace only after one becomes familiar with the interior.

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The lobby areas are spacious without being intimidating - ideal for seeing and being seen, and for the numerous civic functions that will take place in this city-owned facility.

Pei has juxtaposed squares, circles, and a rectangle in his limestone and travertine marble public spaces. The building site is roughly square, the lobby balconies are various sized circles, the music chamber is a shoe-box rectangle.

THE music chamber has been fashioned after European opera houses (Rome is his favorite), with three tiers of horseshoe-shaped balconies, a high ceiling, and the feeling of grandiose intimacy. The wood is purely decorative, as are two huge pillars that serve as a proscenium-like divider between audience and stage space.

The blend of cello-toned wood, limestone, plain blue walls, and onyx detailings (light-fixtures and backlit panels on the balcony facings, among other places) create a soothing environment attractive to the eye and in harmony with the performers on stage, whether an orchestra or a quartet.

The decorative pattern is a grid suggestive of the Vienna Secessionist school, which covers all the walls and rises up to the ceiling.

This grid is also suggested on the gigantic 42-ton acoustical canopy that is suspended over the stage and is the most obvious element in Johnson's acoustical design. The least visible parts of that design are the partially coupled chambers that ring the hall: In fact, they are hidden behind the grid work. When opened, they add noticeably to the reverberation.

The canopy and its two side pieces can be moved up and down, with a change in pitch of plus-or-minus seven degrees, depending on the music and the size of the performing group. And when the Fisk organ is fully installed (in 1992), the canopy will be virtually up to the ceiling when the instrument is being used.

The hall is very good, indeed, acoustically. I had a chance to hear it from just about every level and vantage point and found few sections where the sound was wanting. (The orchestra terrace, just under a balcony, did at first suggest a certain remoteness of sound to which the ear adjusted quite quickly.)

The sound projects effortlessly from the stage; it is unmuddied, clear, and unflattering to poor technique. It is also startlingly potent in bass response - be it bass drums or the nine lowest notes in the organ, which were hooked up for the gala opening. There is a liveness to the sound that never becomes excessive or aggressively bright.

A full orchestral tutti rings gloriously out without being deafening or harsh, yet the quietest moments of a string quartet still project with ease in the space.

The hall - chamber and public spaces - is still unfinished. There are countless details that need completing, and there is still a good deal of marble to be installed. But the most glaring bit of unfinished business concerns the canopy: It desperately needs a cover over the top so the patrons in the top balcony (called the Grand Tier) don't see the unsightly snarl of cables and wires that inevitably catches one's eye, even with the hall lights at their dimmest.

The seating is surprisingly un-Texan in dimension - that is, cramped. The polished brass railing in front of the first row of chorus seats picks up the stage lights with glaring brightness. In fact, the stage lighting in general is haphazard - sometimes so dim on stage and in the hall as to make focusing difficult, other times so poor on the apron as to make soloists' faces dark, featureless pools.

The sound itself will be tinkered with (the jargon is ``tuned'') over the next two or three seasons as the orchestra and audience get to know their new environment.

The chambers will need to be controlled with great discipline: Right now, when they are opened, the reverberation seems to decay in two distinct tiers - the normal sound in the hall, the extra sound way overhead, almost as if there were electronic enhancement. It can be thrilling, but it can also be somewhat artificial.

These are all details, most of which are rectifiable. Suffice it to say that the hall is a handsome addition to the US concert scene.

Longtime Monitor music critic Thor Eckert Jr. is now a free-lance writer.

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