Acoustic Lessons from the Renovated Town Hall (And a New String Quartet to Show it Off)


The May 5 concert at Town Hall provided some very good news for classical music in Seattle. With the excellent Ehnes Quartet, the town may now have a resident string quartet, which we have lacked since the Philadelphia String Quartet at UW (1966-84). The newly renovated Town Hall Seattle revealed excellent acoustics for live performance of music. That means we now have three such venues (Nordstrom, Meany, and Town Hall). Count your blessings and cross fingers that quality musical groups will fill these venues.

Town Hall, a converted Christian Science Church on First Hill, is an acoustically warm, resonant hall, but it badly needed some help [Full disclosure: I am the founder of Town Hall and a former director). Wier Harman, the executive director of Town Hall, hired the outstanding acoustical firm of Jaffe-Holden, and tests revealed the large auditorium was bass-heavy.

That problem was corrected in the recent renovation by constructing a “bass-trap” just behind the organ screen fronting the stage. A bass trap is a large thin membrane that like a drumhead absorbs bass. The second problem was sound coming from the lower level performance area and lobby and seeping through the single-pane painted-glass windows. A new HVAC system solved the internal sound bleed, and the restored windows are both brighter and double-paned. The Sunday afternoon performance, free of street noise, could support lovely, very soft passages.

The third problem was that the sound from musicians “went everywhere,” particularly up in the dome and flattened arches of the ceiling. That meant that the sound was uneven, had “hot spots,” and lacked focus. This was solved by creating a large, curved canopy over the stage, which pushed the sound to the sides of the hall, shielded some music from rising to the Mixmaster dome, and pushed the sound right into the audience more quickly.

The sound from the Ehnes Quartet that day was lovely, rich, burnished, full of overtones and character. My seat was stage left, near the south wall so I could hear the reflections of the side wall. It was just about perfect, putting Town Hall up there with some of the greatest acoustic halls I know (Jordan Hall in Boston and Wigmore Hall in London). Wow!

It was a fulfillment of my dream in starting Town Hall in 1999, which was meant to be a hall for chamber music, early music, small orchestras, vocal music, and recitals. Some of the founder organizations have foundered (notably Seattle Camerata, the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, and Philharmonia Northwest). Early Music Guild, another founding group, now plays concerts at Town Hall and other venues. Town Hall was meant to be a common mid-sized hall for such groups at a time when few affordable, available halls served this market.

Town Hall’s remodeled sanctuary is quite wide, relying on the complex ceilings to add character and resonance, rather than the lateral reflections of a shoebox geometry. Jordan Hall is also wide, as is Meany Center for the Performing Arts, where I always sit in the balcony and close to a side wall. As for Nordstrom Recital Hall, which I find too “bright” and dry, farther back allows for more blend. In short, don’t sit dead-center, but head for the walls or the balcony or the back. 

An early acoustical adviser, Artec, sought to enlarge the concert chamber by building perforated ceilings that would allow the sound to pass upward, where it would be mixed and allowed to “fall like rain” on the ears below. (Too expensive and chancy.) So the respected acoustical firm of Jaffe Holden, who were consultants for the McCaw Opera House, came up with the canopy and bass-trap solution. Russ Cooper, the acoustical designer on the Town Hall project, praises the resulting sound as “lovely” and describes Town Hall as “pretty unique.”  Cooper says the best seats at Town Hall are close to the side walls or up front. 

Town Hall ran out of money in its $35 million renovation and so did not install the acoustical drapes to deaden amplified sound in front of the big glass windows. That will square the circle of designing a hall for acoustic music and amplified speech — two remote poles in sound quality (wet and dry, respectively).

The Ehnes Quartet played the wonderful program of three Razumovsky quartets, Beethoven’s Opus 59 — a set of three masterpieces that were completely original at the time (1806) and immensely influential afterward. James Ehnes, a leading violinist and artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music, leads the quartet and his playing is rock-solid and a little held-back. The result is that the other players (Amy Schwartz Moretti violin, Che-Yen Chen, viola, and Edward Arron, cello) can shine and polish particularly the inner voices (Moretti and Chan are old friends), and the cellist can relish his prominence. I found the performance particularly dramatic, as Beethoven lets one character after another enter and transform the scene.

Typically a quartet is dominated by the first violin (not here) or by the dramatic personalities of the individuals (as with the Emerson String Quartet). Instead the Ehnes Quartet reminded me of the burnished, inward gleam of great European quartets like the Guarneri.

The Ehnes ensemble is also unusual in that they do not play and rehearse year-round as a quartet. Ehnes has a busy schedule as a soloist, and the other players teach and play chamber music. There is some sacrifice in precision and exquisite tuning, but a gain in freshness and openness. The Ehnes Quartet is now established as a touring quartet, and the Seattle concert of the three Beethoven quartets was on tour from San Diego to Seattle to Detroit.

Ehnes lives in Florida, but he recently bought a home in Magnolia, so he has become a fixture in musical Seattle. My hope is that the Ehnes Quartet and other players in the Seattle Chamber Music Society will come to think of Town Hall as their second home after Nordstrom/Benaroya. They played this concert to an almost-full hall and an audience rapt with attention and hugely enthusiastic at what they were hearing — musically and acoustically.

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. Thanks for this information and tips about choosing one’s seat in Town Hall. I welcome your tips. I’m a lover of ‘blend,’ so I’ve long chosen a seat in the back of Nordstrom Recital Hall downtown. This renovation with its improved acoustics may just get me back occasionally to Town Hall.

  2. Thanks David for the Town Hall acoustics update and the realization of your dream of additional modifications of the space for superb presentation of live music, especially classical. More important, many thanks for your work a quarter century ago in creating and founding Seattle’s cultural center, Town Hall. Bravo!

  3. Greetings David,

    Paul Carlson (once your neighbor on 36th south of Cherry) here to thank you for saving and restoring Seattle’s Town Hall. I’ve enjoyed many concerts (and a couple lectures) there both before and after restoration. I remember testing the dome with a friend seated across the hall from me – we found spots on either side where we could hold normal conversation! …a parabolic sweet spot if you will. I love the improvements acoustically and aesthetically, oh and the bathrooms!

    I also perform on my cello with Thalia Symphony orchestra at Town Hall (June 2nd is our next concert) so I’m keenly aware of the acoustic challenges and rewards. I can hear my own playing so much better on the Town Hall stage over most other venues. I really think our orchestra is often too powerful for Town Hall but then we also play many softer passages that feel great. I agree the design serves smaller groups best.

    My cello beginnings were served by the Philadelphia String Quartet. Charles Brennand even came by our home and played my cello once, leaving me hopeful of making lovely music one day. I actually don’t recall why he came by…perhaps to consider me as a student? My mom, Doris, played violin with Peggy Monroe and others in a quartet called “The Untouchables” which may have had a session or two with the P.S.Q.. I played along side Brennand’s daughter Meg in the cello section of the Seattle Youth Symphony under the direction of Vilem Sokol. I’ve enjoyed several performances with James Ehnes during the chamber music festival so I hope your wish comes true!

    Not to make too fine a point, but “My seat was stage left, near the south wall…” should probably read stage right.

    🎻 Thanks again! 🎶


  4. I’ve played in there one or two times on tuba, a decade ago, and as I recall it was fun during setup to be able to hear the echo returning from the back of the hall.

  5. Great take on all of it – the journey to now and the results. I’d just add that thanks especially to David Skinner’s contribution Town Hall is also a terrific venue for many of us with hearing aids. The loop system installed throughout the building makes all programming, especially speech into microphones, fully accessible – and one of the few venues in town with that capability.

  6. I join you in having Jordan Hall & Wigmore Hall as my two favorite halls for acoustic perfection. Now Town Hall–many thanks to you–is in that league.


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