Upon first glance, it’s easy to see that what music connoisseurs expect upon entry is just what’s delivered at The Music Center at Strathmore, the 10-year-old symphony hall that’s located just north of Washington, D.C., in North Bethesda, Md.
If it’s the holiday season at the Strathmore (as it’s commonly known), that means that it’s time for saxophonist Dave Koz & Friends to make an appearance, which he and his merry revelers did in early December. This year’s ensemble included fellow sax star Candy Dulfer, guitarist Jonathan Butler and singer Bill Medley, the baritone half of the Righteous Brothers.
While Koz and his fellow celebrants treated the audience to about two hours of holiday standards that were mixed in with a few hits and surprises, the hired help behind the soundboard well knew that the enthusiastic fans aren’t the only reason why the tour returns, year after year.
“[Members of] symphonies routinely say that [the Strathmore] rivals any facility in the world, including Carnegie Hall [in New York City] and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts [Philadelphia], for its acoustic and symphonic sound,” says the Strathmore’s lead audio technician, Caldwell Gray, who noted that the facility also serves as the second home of the venue’s main partner, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “We also work with the National Philharmonic, and we routinely get plenty of the same comments.”
Based on such recommendations, it’s no surprise that the capabilities of the stage exceed what are normally found in such a setup. Mechanical engineer J.R. Clancy, of Syracuse, N.Y., designed the stage and built the guts of the variable acoustic system with a team led by architect Bill Rawn and acoustician Larry Kierkegaard, and Theater Projects of South Norwalk, Conn.
For instance, “There is fabric everywhere behind the walls that we deploy during pop shows,” says Gray, adding that there are also “43 acoustic clouds above the stage, all independently controllable,” as well as other built-in reflectors above the ceiling in the grid.
The speakers in the hall are d&b audiotechnik with a Q rig, which he says always get high marks from the symphonies, as well as the many rock and pop acts that play at the Strathmore. “In my opinion, d&b is the best speaker made for professional sound, because it’s so flat. It’s incredibly natural sounding,” says Gray. “Nine of 10 engineers that walk into the hall say, ‘d&b? No problem.’ And when they leave, they say how great it sounded.”
That’s critical in symphony halls, “because there is so much low-end reverb. The walls are built to resonate during Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, or similar bombast,” he says, noting the challenge of presenting amplified music in any such hall. “Acts have to adjust their show to our space.”
That was the case with Koz and company, said the group’s front-of-house engineer, Melissa Britton, who relies on the DiGiCo SD10, with (mostly) Shure mics and ear monitors, for the band and artists, as well as Telefunken M80 vocal mics.
What’s interesting about playing the Strathmore is that the d&bs “really work for that hall,” says Britton. “We play a lot of similar halls, but the amplification in the others doesn’t sound the same as it does in the Strathmore. [That’s due to] the care that they took in picking the proper P.A. system and hanging it correctly for that venue. That really stands out for amplified music.”
And that’s not always the case. Britton says she told Jones before the show that she’d never question bringing in the group’s P.A., “but we liked what the Strathmore had to offer.
“It’s nice to use a P.A. that is already tuned and timed correctly. I didn’t have to make any major changes,” Britton says. “The room itself has a really nice reverb to it. I don’t have to add much, because it’s naturally there, due to the way it’s built to respond to acoustic music. I find the more live the room is, the more the audience is into it; they feed off each other and when the room isn’t acoustically dead.”
Gray concurs: “Every artist that walks on our stage for the first time says it’s awesome. That’s as good as it gets.”