The stage at Peabody’s venerable Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall, celebrating its sesquicentennial this year, has been graced by countless luminaries, from Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky to Hilary Hahn and Philip Glass. Yet this Peabody Institute landmark, the oldest concert venue in Baltimore, is showing its age.
The 750-seat hall is in need of renovation to correct acoustical issues that have been in place since a 1982 remodel, say Peabody officials, as well as to update lighting, rigging, and audiovisual systems. A $500,000 grant from the France-Merrick Foundation will allow work to begin this summer, the first phase of a comprehensive $1.6 million initiative to modernize Friedberg Hall’s aging technology and acoustical infrastructure so that it meets current standards.
For Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein, it is critical that students performing on the Friedberg stage accurately hear the music that they and their colleagues are playing. “For some, it is hard to hear, and therefore it is hard to learn to listen,” says Dean Bronstein. “We want to improve the learning experience as well as the audience experience, of course. Friedberg is a very historic hall, very important to the history of Baltimore, and we want to make sure we make it the best it can be,” he says.
Peabody has retained R. Lawrence Kirkegaard, “one of the top acousticians in the world,” Dean Bronstein says, to oversee the acoustical renovations. In addition to his work in concert halls throughout the nation and across the globe, Mr. Kirkegaard is known locally for improving the acoustics of Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. He also consulted on the design of the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland. Both venues are homes to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
From Mr. Kirkegaard’s perspective, Friedberg Hall has “wonderful bones” and was probably a better performance space before the 1982 remodel, which unfortunately did some harm to the acoustics. Some original windows were removed and replaced with gypsum board panels, he says, and air-conditioning ductwork was installed behind additional gypsum board surfaces. “Unfortunately, these new surfaces were aligned in parallel,” he says, “which causes them to repetitively reflect sound back and forth across the hall.
“They simply are not reflecting sound the way they should,” says Mr. Kirkegaard. “Instead, they are emphasizing high-frequency distortion and disproportionately absorbing the low-frequency portion of the scale.”
One key upgrade will be an extension of the front of the stage, increasing its useful depth. Upstage, he says, an 8-foot-high increase in acoustic mass will provide better sound reflection for instruments in close proximity to the wall. In addition, a sheet of canvas will be installed to create a “ceiling” enclosure above the stage, to enhance tone production and improve performers’ ability to hear one another. The bass-absorbing gypsum board panels will be replaced with plastered masonry. Structural piers on the hall’s side walls will receive a thin acoustic coating to diminish harsh, high-frequency sound reflection from these surfaces.
The acoustic work has to be done over the summer, says Joe Brant, Peabody’s director of facilities, to minimize the disruption to teaching and performing schedules.
Additional improvements planned for Friedberg Hall — at a later stage, as funding becomes available — include stage lifts, updated lighting grids, enhanced HVAC systems, and the installation of new technology to facilitate live streaming.
— Christine Stutz
Miriam A. Friedberg Hall, ca. 1900, with functional windows from the original 1861 building construction.