Three years after the opening of the new Music Center at Strathmore in Montgomery County, MD, the venue’s management continues to rave about the concert hall’s extraordinary acoustical quality. “The design does absolutely what we needed it to do,” says Mark Grabowski, executive vice president of operations for Strathmore. “We have been pleased as punch with the system—I would recommend it hands down.”

Grabowski is not the only one who responds enthusiastically to the theatre’s innovative acoustical design. The Washington Post placed a performance by the La Scala Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore as the area’s top classical music performance of 2007, and Grabowski credits the concert hall’s acoustic capabilities with a major role in achieving this high praise.

“Musical acts who perform for a single night at the Music Center often go out of their way to comment on the extraordinary acoustics in this new theatre,” notes Louie Sunga, senior consultant for architectural integration at Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago.

It was an innovative and highly original project back in 2004, one that required an intensive collaboration between Theatre Projects Consultants, Kirkegaard Associates, and J.R. Clancy, Inc., to create an array of variable acoustic devices and a control system that could not only organize and control a total of 110 electromechanical elements, but could also display them in a way that provides critical information to the acoustician and the system’s operator.

When the expert acousticians at Kirkegaard took on the challenge of creating these precise, adjustable acoustics, they called on J.R. Clancy to provide the individual controls. The project required 43 clear acoustic panel reflectors (APRs) and 14 variable acoustical banners, as well as banner rollers and a large quantity of soft goods.

“Clancy was involved in rigging for variable acoustics at many other successful theatres, so we knew they were the right choice for this project,” says Sunga. “Each of the reflectors at Strathmore is individually controlled to tilt in three directions—elevation, pitch, and roll—to fit the various ensembles that perform in the hall. We needed something solid that could be shaped or molded—and we were required to maintain the view in the theatre, so the panels had to be transparent to the audience. It was a challenging assignment.”

Kirkegaard began the project by encasing the hall in 16-inch thick concrete for sound isolation—creating hard, reflective surfaces that would be supportive for symphonic music, which customarily uses no amplification. They added velour banners that can roll up and down to change the acoustical quality of the hall and disguised these banners behind sound-transparent perforated metal. J. R. Clancy provided the versatile three-directional moving winches for the 43 APRs, as well as winches for the variable acoustical banners and the roller banners. All of these winches are controlled through the SceneControl automated motion control system, developed by Clancy for complex show control situations.

SceneControl technology allowed Clancy specialist Larry Eschelbacher to work closely with Theatre Projects and Kirkegaard to create exactly the user interface required. The interface could display acoustical canopy system moves in real-time, giving the system operator a true picture of the position of each element in the total system. The touch screen and controls permit the operator to change a panel or banner’s position, while providing zoom, orbit and pan capabilities to provide the operator with the most advantageous view.

“This is particularly effective serendipitously,” notes Michael Nishball, director of technical production of Theatre Projects Consultants. “As is the case in many cutting edge endeavors such as this, we did not realize until the half-inch acrylic reflectors were rigged and unwrapped that the combined clarity of the material and the concert lighting made it difficult to accurately see exactly what attitude the APRs were in. We began to rely on the production control panel’s superb graphics to preview new system presets backstage.”

The SceneControl system is so easy to use that a single operator can do the job for even the most complex performances, Grabowski says. “Kirkegaard established eight presets that handle 90 to 95 percent of our performances,” he explains. “Generally, we don’t need to do a thing beyond those. Once in a while, we may tweak the preset, but that’s rare.”

“The SceneControl presets for specific kinds of ensembles make it easier for the house production staff to use the acoustical controls in the best possible manner,” adds Sunga.

In addition to the acoustical system, Clancy provided a speaker cluster winch and door actuators, 17 curtain door actuators, six concert lighting winches, and a distributed arch. “To create a system like this and make it invisible to the audience and easy to use was a major undertaking—but Clancy was a wonderful partner in the process,” says Sunga.

If ticket sales are any indication, the Music Center at Strathmore delivers on its promise of brilliantly controlled sound. Since opening, average capacity for performances of jazz, pop, rock, classical, folk, bluegrass and others presented by Strathmore has been 85 percent, most Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts on Saturday nights are sold out well in advance, and guest performances in the 1,976-seat theatre regularly play to packed houses.