Acoustic upgrades have NACO sounding better than ever

The National Arts Centre has lifted the curtain on $115 million in upgrades to its performance spaces, including a sound-enhancing orchestra shell in Southam Hall.

NAC unveils $115M in enhancements to Southam Hall, other performance spaces

'As soon as I gave the first downbeat, I felt the change in the sound,' said NACO conductor Alexander Shelley. (CBC News)

Expect a bigger, brighter sound from the National Arts Centre Orchestra when it kicks off its 50th season next week, thanks to a major acoustic upgrade to Southam Hall.  

A towering orchestra shell now envelopes the stage, doubling the musicians' output so that even the most subtle notes reach the farthest row. The stage itself has been lowered, bringing the musicians closer to the audience.

"As soon as I gave the first downbeat, I felt the change in the sound," said NAC conductor Alexander Shelley, who has also announced he'll be leading the orchestra for another five years.  

Construction of the new orchestra shell took place over the summer. ( Roy Grogan)

Shelley said Southam Hall was originally designed as a multi-use auditorium, primarily for opera productions. The musicians would sit in the pit below the stage, where they struggled to perform in a space that sucked up the sound. 

"If you can imagine a hockey team that's training on a rink that's a little too small ... you can never feel comfortable in [it]," Shelley said. 

Now the orchestra has everything it needs "to blossom and bloom," Shelley said, and he expects the audience to notice the change immediately.

"[Whether] you're sitting in the front row, or the middle or the back row, you feel enveloped by the sound," he said.

Expect a bigger, brighter sound from the National Arts Centre Orchestra when it kicks off its 50th season next week, thanks to a major acoustic upgrade to Southam Hall. 1:33

It's all part of a $115-million upgrade to production equipment at the NAC's performance venues, which was announced by the federal government in March 2016.

The sound enhancements, which have been five years in the making, also involved tearing up carpets and replacing seating with wooden-backed chairs to quiet the hall. The new shell is constructed with an oak veneer on engineered sandwich panels, mounted onto steel frame structures. It can be moved around to tweak the sound.

Not only will the audience enjoy a richer and more robust sound, the musicians will also have an easier time hearing themselves play.

"They used to just follow the baton, but now they can communicate and listen to each other," said Scott Pfeiffer, an acoustician with Threshold Acoustics, the team responsible for the upgrade.

Audiences will have an opportunity to listen for themselves next week when the NACO opens its 50th season with a festival dedicated to the symphonies of Beethoven.

We meet the two people who've been instrumental in improving the acoustics of the NAC. 6:49