Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto Undergoes a $20 Million Renovation for Its 20th Anniversary

The celebrated home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Roy Thomson Hall opened in downtown Toronto, Canada, in the fall of 1982 and celebrated its 20th anniversary this year with the completion of a $20 million (Canadian dollars) acoustic enhancement. The main focus of the project was the acoustical redesign of the auditorium by Russell Johnson, principal designer at Artec Consultants in New York City. The Canadian architectural design firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg translated and implemented the onsite renovations that took place during a 22-week shutdown of the hall, from mid-March to mid-August 2002. The gala reopening was on September 21, 2002.

Designed in 1976 by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, Roy Thomson Hall has a distinguished guest book of celebrities, musical and otherwise, including HRH Queen Elizabeth II, who attended a Royal Gala performance of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1984. Leonard Bernstein, at age 71, conducted the Vienna Philharmonic here in 1988, just two years before his death. Considered an architectural jewel, the building is capped by a translucent glass canopy that changes with the angle of light, the seasons, and the time of day. At night, the glass lets the interior lighting radiate outward, adding to the sparkle of the architecture.

Yet both the orchestra and the audience complained of the lack of acoustic presence, strength, and intimacy in the hall. “The room lacked warmth,” confirms William B. Allison III, ASTC, part of the team from Artec Consultants. The original room design included multicolored tubes or “cigarettes,” some of which were sculpture and some of which were banners for adjustable acoustic absorption. There were also small Plexiglas disks for early reflections, but the system was simply not effective.

These have been replaced with an Artec-designed system of adjustable Canadian maple canopies as the room has been transformed from gray concrete to warm blond wood, while respecting Erickson's original designs. The original pale gray seats have been reconditioned, while old gray carpet was removed. The floor is now blond maple as well, to make the room acoustics even more live. Additional maple was added to the stage walls in special pivoting panels, and on the upper auditorium walls in the new volume-reducing bulkheads. The hall's famous Gabriel Kney pipe organ was re-voiced and retuned to sound beautiful in the new, smaller size room.

“The new canopies correct some of the acoustic shortcomings,” says Allison. The primary canopy is circular, clad in blond maple, measures 52' in diameter, weighs 38 tons, and can be lowered to 10' above the stage floor, at a speed of 3' per minute. This canopy also holds motorized bi-parting doors that open to allow the loudspeaker cluster to pass through for use during amplified events.

A second, crescent-shaped canopy wraps around the back of the main, circular canopy. Also adjustable, this secondary canopy weighs 10.5 tons and allows the distance to acoustically reflective surfaces to change based on the type of music being performed, and adds additional flexibility to the acoustic treatment.

A curved box truss flies directly underneath the crescent canopy and echoes its shape. All of the rigging and stage machinery, including control and safety systems, was manufactured and installed by Joel Theatrical Rigging Contractors Ltd. in Mississauga, Canada, under the direction of Van Marineau. Over 75 tons of steel were added to the attic structure to carry the new acoustic canopies, as well as 75 new rigging points for one-ton Chain Master chain hoists (with dual brakes so they don't have to be dead hung) to carry trusses for such elements as drapes, scenery, and projection screens.

In addition to the canopies, other related acoustic improvements include the addition of 23 wooden bulkheads (12,000 sq. ft of wood). Their purpose is to reduce the interior volume of the auditorium by 13.5%, from almost one million cu. ft. to 850,000 cu. ft. “The old volume was enormous and very hard for the orchestra to excite,” says Allison. “The new, smaller volume better contains music energy.”

The bulkheads are clad in the same Canadian maple as the canopies and provide soffits in strategic places that help reflect the sound back into the room, which is now much warmer in terms of both form and function. The bulkheads also alter the shape of the oval auditorium, squaring it off to reshape the acoustic patterns. New sound-absorbing acoustic banners of heavy velour can be employed for amplified concerts and Toronto Film Festival screenings, for example, while the classical music configuration is all wood. When not in use, the banners are stored in the top valence of each bulkhead. Air conditioning is also supplied from the bulkheads.

Another important change is the replacement of the hall's continental seating on the orchestra level with a “traditional seating” plan that has two interior aisles for better access. Side boxes and rear parterre seats were added as well, but it is important to note that the stage was extended 3' into the auditorium to increase the playing platform size for the orchestra. In the end, the total seating was reduced from 2,812 to 2,630 seats.

Once the adjustable acoustic canopies had been designed, improvements to the concert lighting system could be addressed by William Conley, manager of maintenance and engineering at the hall, and Joel Rubin of Artec, along with Richard Goode of Strand Canada. In the past, orchestra members found it difficult to read the score, so the new canopies include improved lighting positions and new challenges as well.

“The focus of the lighting would change as the canopy height was moved up and down,” explains Goode. He had also been involved in a lighting retrofit at the hall a few years ago when a new dimming system with Strand CD80 SV high-performance 800 micro-second rise time reporting dimmers was installed.

“They thought about longevity at that time and planned for expansion in the future, so they were ready to move to the current level of dimming,” Goode notes. The system has also been updated to include two Strand 520 consoles (a 550 that was replaced with a second 520 in the most recent upgrade).

So how to deal with the changing trim heights of the lighting fixtures?

The idea of bringing in a crew to refocus the instruments each time was not a very graceful solution. A better solution was the addition of Vari*Lite® automated luminaires. The house rig includes 62 VL1000 ERS luminaires (all tungsten), 42 with framing shutters and 20 with iris kit, as well as 20 VL2000 wash luminaires and 10 VL2000 spot luminaires. The VL2000 luminaires are intended to be used during amplified events, while the convection-cooled VL1000s can be used during acoustic events. “They are beautiful instruments for critical listening activities because you just don't hear them,” says Allison.

The automated fixtures are hung on the truss below the crescent canopy to provide backlight, as well as in the slots of the main canopy. These allow for remote focusing as the trim height changes, or pre-programmed focus groups can be stored in the consoles. The conventional inventory includes 20 Strand SL zooms, and 50 generic PAR-56s built into the main canopy. There are also 22 Strand SL 10° ellipsoidals used as architectural lighting on the wood surfaces. Additional lighting positions include “lip” pipes and ladder trusses around the canopies.

The lighting system also now included Strand's ShowNet information distribution network with SN110 dual port ethernet nodes that can be configured as DMX inputs or outputs for control of touring consoles, additional automated lighting, scrollers, or other devices. A Strand wireless remote, based on the Compaq iPaq PDA, allows remote access and setup of the consoles and ethernet nodes from anyplace in the building. “We also added a file server so they can archive show files and the reporting system for the dimmers,” notes Goode. The network was installed by Rick Foley of Scenework in Guelph, Canada.

The sound reinforcement system was also upgraded, although not completely replaced. “They re-used the same center cluster of 15-year-old Meyer speakers,” explains Tom Clark of Artec Consultants, who supervised the system retrofit, while Bob McCarthy, Meyer's SIM guru came in to SIM the system. “He found that the changes in the room's architecture makes it easier to use the existing equipment more effectively.”

The main improvement to the system is a new Yamaha PM1D digital mixing console. “This was the best choice for several reasons, including the very shallow footprint of the sound booth,” Clark notes. “Given the space restraints, the Yamaha console gives them a huge amount of flexibility, handling internally the digital effects and dynamics processing chores normally performed by outboard equipment.” Another upgrade is the BSS Soundweb PC-based digital loudspeaker processing that was added, allowing the system to be reconfigured quickly and files to be stored and later modified.

Tannoy CMS8TDC co-axial ceiling speakers were added in the bottom of the new architectural bulkheads. “These act as delay units to help get additional high-end frequency information to the upper tier,” says Clark. The front-fill loudspeakers built into the apron across the front of the stage were replaced with d&b E3 speakers that use dedicated d&b E-Pac amplifiers. Existing Crown amplifiers are used for the Meyer and Tannoy loudspeakers.

“We also replaced the microphone and speaker wiring on the stage,” says Clark, who explains that the architectural changes in the room meant that the connector panels needed to be replaced so the decision was made to upgrade the wiring at the same time. “We didn't want to leave a weak link in the chain,” he says.

“The orchestra is happy, the sound is good, they can hear themselves play onstage, which is important, and the audience seems happy as well,” says Conley, about the improvements to the hall. “We can also do a bigger variety of shows with a much quicker turnover, and that is critical in a non-profit institution like this one. It makes life much easier for us.”