W hen the board of trustees of the Cleveland Orchestra committed to a renovation of Severance Hall, the needs of the facility outweighed the risk. The risk involved preserving the distinctive "Cleveland Orchestra sound" that discriminating concertgoers are familiar with. Achieving just the right balance eventually led the Musical Arts Association, owner of Severance Hall, to reunite architect David Schwarz and acoustic consultants Christopher Jaffe and Paul Scarbrough of Jaffe Holden Scarbrough. Prior to Severance Hall, the team had worked on Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall. Jaffe says that on this project, maintaining that "Cleveland sound" was of paramount importance. "The ensemble effect is very strong--the Cleveland Orchestra's clarity is greater than that of Boston's or Vienna's--and so a goal was to make the musicians even more comfortable onstage," he notes. "We increased the liveliness of the hall without sacrificing clarity, and preserved the transparency by which all of the inner lines of a complex score are visible."

There were many aspects of Severance Hall that needed attention. The space required improved patron amenities, including additional restrooms, a larger restaurant, and making the trip from a parking garage to the auditorium more esthetically pleasing. The building's original front side has been virtually unused since an underground parking garage built in the 90s became the primary entrance to the building. The project added a 40' extension (39,000 sq. ft.) to the rear of the building and restored 42,000 sq. ft. of the 160,000 sq. ft. interior space. Total cost of the project, which began in 1995, is $36.7 million, divided between construction ($24 million), restoration ($2.5 million), capital equipment including fixtures and organ ($4.2 million), design and engineering ($4.5 million), and a move to and from a temporary home at the Allen Theatre of Cleveland's Playhouse Square Center ($1.5 million). Work spanned 22 months, and a grand rededication was held in January.

A landmark building in the Art Deco style, Severance Hall's groundbreaking took place just two weeks after the stock market crashed in 1929. The original $7-million facility was named for the wife of philanthropist John Long Severance and completed in 1931. Elisabeth Huntington DeWitt Severance died before the project started, but her strong views on the facility's opulence and comfort were followed. Severance Hall was initially seen as a space that would be flexible enough to accommodate both concerts and stage productions, but this proved problematic, given that there is no wing space and little fly space.

Critical to the renovation of the concert hall is the stage area. Under the legendary music director George Szell, a shell was constructed in 1958 to improve acoustics. Minimalist and functional, this shell reflected a design style of the 1950s. While it did serve the sound well, the shell obscured the Art Deco features of the hall itself. Architect David Schwarz explains, "Entering the concert hall was anticlimactic, since the shell was almost an intrusion in the space. We wanted the concert hall to be the visual climax of the guests' experience."

Acoustical consultant Christopher Jaffe needed to preserve the qualities of sound that the "Szell shell" provided, while Schwarz integrated a new design congruent with the Deco motifs. The new shell consists of side and ceiling panels; the side panels range from 24' high downstage to 20' high upstage. They are slightly convex, faced with curly maple and aluminum leaf, and filled with sand. Above them on the side walls are new cast-aluminum grilles designed by Schwarz. Behind the grilles is the organ loft, with the E. M. Skinner organ, which has been unused since the shell was installed.

Above the stage, the original support beams of the organ loft now support the new shell structure. New I-beams support the shell's ceiling panels. Dubbed "pillows," the ceiling panels are 25 curved surfaces, about 8.5' wide and 6' deep, made of fiberglass-reinforced polymer. The light peach color of the panels gives a warm cast to the stage and is appropriate to the Egyptian Revival style that deviates from the strict Deco look of much of the building. Theatrical fixtures are hidden above and between these units, although from the audience's perspective the panels seem to cover the stage and continue the Deco fan motif that dominates Severance Hall. This motif softens corners and is most visible above small boxes that flank the proscenium. Scarbrough, acoustical consultant with Jaffe, notes, "Each of the units is a different size because the randomizing of shapes helps the acoustics."

Part of the shell design includes risers for the musicians. Winds, brasses, and percussion are now elevated "so the audience can see who's playing," says Jaffe. The entire shell, in fact, was created primarily for the musicians. Reflecting the sound so the musicians can hear one another is a great step toward ensemble performance. "The old shell reflected the sound toward the audience, but the new one enables the musicians to hear each other more clearly," Schwarz says. "It is hard to separate the senses and what the increased visibility of the musicians to the audience contributes to their aural presence."

Overall, Scarbrough says the main challenge was to improve a space that was already well regarded by both musicians and the audience. "We wanted to make improvements, but not to change those elements that are integral to the Cleveland Orchestra's success," he explains. "Improving onstage hearing was a modest goal, but more important was to disperse the stronger sounds, such as those of trombones. We worked for a balance of transparency and blend. To hear every instrument individually [complete transparency] is not desirable, and an ensemble blend tempers that.

"We can use equipment to measure frequency response, intervals, and other elements of sound, but we needed to know what the orchestra and Musical Arts Organization wanted," he continues. "What we called the 'discovery' phase was critical. This included extensive interviews with the conductor, Musical Arts Association, and musicians. We would hear things such as 'Severance Hall has a warm sound,' but no two musicians use the term in the same way, and we had to reconcile their vocabulary, largely artistic, with the science of acoustics."

The reverberation time of Severance Hall has been increased from 1.6 seconds before renovation to 1.8 seconds after renovation. "This adds warmth and luster to the sound, without loss of clarity," says Jaffe. It also duplicates the reverb time of Carnegie Hall and Boston's Symphony Hall.

Concert hall lighting was conceptualized by Fisher-Dachs Associates of New York. Cleveland-based Vincent Lighting Systems did the installation. Vincent's Greg Shick says, "The four-point lighting was conceived partly for a television special to commemorate Severance Hall's opening. Four-point lighting is not the norm in many concert halls." That decision seems to be a wise one, as music writers, usually unconcerned with lighting, have commented that the Cleveland Orchestra members look more "alive" than those in other facilities.

Shick says, "The lighting is still very high-angled, but now there are facial lights and the ambience of the new shell makes for a much warmer look. The lighting is 3,200 degrees, with some diffusion and some neutral density filters. Most importantly there is the feeling of the audience being in the same space, the same chamber, as the musicians. We have a shorter lamp life with the higher color temperature, but the Musical Arts Association was willing to construct a supplemental plywood catwalk for instrument maintenance."

Forty Strand ellipsoidals and 109 ETC Source Four PARs are the basis of the concert hall's new lighting system. A renovation five years ago replaced resistance dimmers with four Strand CD80 dimmer racks and a Mini Lightpalette 90 console. Much of the conduit ran through the old shell and had to be replaced as the new shell was completed. Colored PAR lamps in alcoves throughout the auditorium add drama to the house lighting.

Shick says, "We could not aim as far downstage as the plot drawings originally intended. Also, the fixture locations were limited, since the Musical Arts Association insisted that no instrument could be in the audience's sightline. Some areas were difficult to backlight into. We created a new lighting position for four of the Source Fours above the house ceiling in spaces formerly used for house lights. We had to fabricate custom mounting brackets there. The installation had to satisfy all of the constituency groups, including the musicians, TV people, Musical Arts Association, and of course, the audience."

Few changes are apparent to patrons within the 2,000-seat auditorium itself. The deep blue fabric of the seats and curtains closely match the fabrics they replaced. Schwarz says, "We also took up blue tiling that covered much of the floor, exposing the concrete underneath. Other changes were to carpet aisles and install wood flooring in the boxes." Sound Com of Cleveland installed a Sennheiser system for the hearing-impaired as well as a hard-wired Telex intercom system with seven stations. Subcontractor Caravan Industries installed the audio, which includes EAW LS-832 and 2194 speakers, a Crown Macro-Tech 2400 power source, a BSS Soundweb, one Meyer CP-10 monitor processor, Vega R662 wireless mics, and a Tascam CD-159 CD player and 102mk11 cassette player.

Below the main concert hall is the 400-seat Reinberger Chamber Hall. Long neglected, this area has been given new life by increasing the stage size by 50% and renovating stage access to accommodate a piano that formerly resided permanently on the stage. The minimal stage lighting was expanded to include ETC Source Fours with cold metal mirrors, and Lighting + Electronics Mini-Strips. For the first time, house lights and stage lighting are controlled through an ETC Unison 16-fader control station, and an ETC Sensor 48-module dimmer rack. Thunder and Lightning did the installation, with high-rise dimmers specified for the low noise. Relamping the house lights has brightened the auditorium, which suggests an 18th century drawing room. Painted murals depicting gardens flank the seating areas. The murals have been restored by New York's EverGreene Studios.

A second part of the renovation is the expansion of the building itself. The 40' extension at the rear of Severance Hall enlarges existing spaces and creates new facilities. The musicians' locker rooms have been expanded, as have reception rooms, a gift shop called the Cleveland Orchestra Store, and the organ lofts. Schwarz says, "When the hall was built, there were no dressing rooms for female musicians, because there weren't any. We had to reconfigure space that included old corridors and closets." Ten feet of "empty space" in the lofts will blend the organ's sounds before they travel toward the audience.

The additional space provided new office areas, an artists' canteen, a freight elevator and loading dock, and a patron lobby. Schwarz explains, "The enhanced entrance experience will build ceremonially up to the beauty and drama of the main foyer. Many of these spaces are narrow and have low ceilings, so we worked with recessed lighting to modulate the entrance experience starting from the garage."

The Grand Foyer is the gathering place before entering the auditorium. Many consider it the most beautiful public room in Cleveland. Schwarz's team has brightened and restored Egyptian murals that surround the space. They also removed carpeting from the stairs and restored niches that formerly held plaques commemorating donors. Three pairs of bronze doors remain. They were the hall's original entrance, but are almost never used now, with the underground parking garage located near the back of the building.

Unfinished in the renovations is the Skinner Organ, which is being restored by the Schanz Organ Company for a February rededication. Orchestra conductor Christof von Dohnanyi noted that all great concert halls have an organ. The Skinner has been silent for 40 years, since the old shell had been installed. It was restored enough to be heard and deemed a suitable instrument for Severance Hall. Scarbrough is supervising the organ and its acoustic implications.

Following Severance Hall's gala opening in January, praise for the project has been universal. Allan Kozinn of The New York Times wrote, "Severance has long been considered one of the best-sounding concert halls in the United States...The [new] hall sounds as seductive as it looks."

In London's Financial Times, Stephen Pettitt wrote, "...the orchestra's [concertmaster] William Preucil deliberately challenged the hall by exaggerating the pianissimos, daring not to project. If the result sounded musically fragile, it demonstrated a remarkable acoustic responsiveness."


(26) 10-degree Strand Lighting SL ellipsoidals

(6) 19-degree Strand Lighting SL ellipsoidals

(5) 26-degree Strand Lighting SL ellipsoidals

(3) 50-degree Strand Lighting SL ellipsoidals

(109) ETC Source Four PARs with cold mirror reflectors


(2) EAW LS-832s (main floor sidefill)

(2) EAW LS-832s (balcony sidefill)

(2) EAW 2194s (upstage sidefill)

(2) EAW 2164s (downstage sidefill)

(1) Crown Macro-Tech 2400 power source

(1) Control/Electronics: BSS Soundweb

(1) Meyer CP-10 (monitor processing)

Vega R662 wireless mics

Tascam CD-150 CD player

Tascam 102mk11 cassette player


(1) Sennheiser SI20-120R Rackmount two-channel. Switch Stereo IR

(5) Sennheiser SZI1029-24W Emitter 24 VDCs

(20) Sennheiser HDI92-P Stethophone receivers

(1) Shure VP88 M-S stereo microphone

(1) Symetrix 302 dual mic preamplifier

(1) Pro-Co WPE 101 gang engraved mic 1&2


(1) Telex PS-200L two-channel amp power supply

(5) Telex BP-1000 beltpack user stations

(5) Telex PH-1 single-sided headsets


(6) 50-degree ETC Source Four JRs

(6) Lighting + Electronics MR-16 6' 30 light Mini-Strips

(17) ETC Source Four PARs with cold mirror reflectors

(1) Sensor Dimmer Rack 48 Module with 2.4kW (20A) dimmer modules

(1) Sensor 96-channel control module

(1) Unison 16-fader, 12-button (7-gang) control station