Hitting the wrong notes: Concert venues at Williams pose musical difficulties

To what degree are musical performances influenced by their venues? For a small school in rural New England, Williams is home to unusually high quality musicians, from the amateur members of the Berkshire Symphony to student rock bands. But big-name acts from outside the Purple Bubble are rare and student attendance is difficult to predict. Part of the problem may be the College’s concert halls, all of which pose different kinds of problems to organizers.

ACE-sponsored concerts take place in Lasell Gym, Goodrich and occasionally outdoors. “Williams has an interesting set of concert spaces,” ACE President Drew Newman ’04 said. “From my perspective, I wish there were more.”

Lasell Gym was built in 1886 by J.C. Cady & Company, four years after its twin building, Morgan. The room where the concerts are held is nothing to look at, and sightlines are limited because there is no actual stage, but it has decent acoustics and is a perfectly functional space for concerts, at least on paper.

According to Newman, Lasell Gym is a great place for ACE’s major shows, “but it has its limitations, too, because it only has a 1000-person capacity, which means for even those big shows, only half the campus can attend.” The next smallest space is Goodrich, which has a 400-person capacity. Despite the limited number of students that can attend, those that do are treated to a great experience because of close proximity to the artists and great sightlines from the balcony.

The Virginia Coalition concert on Sept. 5 was originally scheduled to be on Sawyer Lawn, but was moved to Goodrich due to a scheduling conflict with Convocation. However, Goodrich turned out to be a terrific replacement, and as Newman noted, “the band mentioned that it was one of their best college concerts in a while.” The permanent stage in the main room is also a major asset, as is the beautiful interior, which retains some details of the building’s religious origins, while still feeling modern and sophisticated.

The only larger spaces available for rock concerts are the Towne Field House and the Chapman Rink, which have hosted concerts in the past, though infrequently. Both of those venues have the advantage of being able to accommodate the entire student body, but “the problem is that both venues are notorious for having horrible acoustics, so in order to throw a big show in the rink, we’d have to rent acoustical walls and bring them in to surround the stage to actually have it sound decent in there,” Newman said.

Another option available is having concerts outdoors, although that presents its own peculiar set of difficulties. “I personally love outdoor concerts,” said Newman said. “The challenge with outdoor concerts, obviously, is the weather. If it rains, not only is it going to be difficult to get people out there, but then you have questions of safety, since there’s a ton of power running out there to support the show and there are tens of thousands of dollars of expensive equipment.” Local laws and noise ordinances can also play a factor in outdoor shows.

Of all of the concert venues on campus, Chapin Hall remains the most prominent and recognized, with its regal Corinthian columns and red brick façade coolly gazing across Baxter lawn to Route 2. The hall was built in 1912 at a price of $259,313 by the architecture firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, which also designed the Freshman Quad and Stetson. Its interior exudes a sense of wonderfully detailed craftsmanship, with the beautiful wood surfaces on the seats and balcony, the ornate plaster ceiling and the crystal chandeliers hanging overhead.

Chapin “looks great and oozes college tradition,” David Kechley, chair of the music department, noted. “When parents and prospectives come to campus and see the inside of Chapin, they are very impressed by the look of it. Unfortunately, that’s where [the hall’s] good qualities end as a concert venue because the acoustics are very poor and mounting concerts for any large group is a logistical nightmare.”

Audience members have noticed that sound quality varies throughout the hall. Last year, Melody Marchman ’06 examined the acoustics of the hall as physics project. According to Marchman, “The best place to sit is the front row aisle seat. If you’re sitting on the sides, the sound is horrible!”

Other acoustic problems in Chapin include uncontrolled reverberation, which creates a significant loss of clarity and an overemphasis on high frequencies paired with an underemphasis on low frequencies. “What is really too bad is that though there is emphasis in the 3000-7000 Hertz range, which should increase coherence, there is little clarity. So it’s like having the worst of both,” Kechley said. There has been some talk in the past of acoustical modifications, but there is always fear of spoiling the look of Chapin.

Logistics in Chapin are also problematic. “It is not possible to bring a grand piano on or off Chapin stage without taking it apart and putting it on its side,” Kechley explained. “We now have a $160,000 piano that we must do that with far more often than I would like. In addition, it costs about $300 every time.” The stage is small and oddly shaped, which makes it difficult for large ensembles to perform, and there is no convenient green room or backstage area.

The audience does not have an easy time of it either. The seats are hard and high-backed, and instead of being angled towards the stage, they all face directly forward, forcing those not close to the aisles to turn awkwardly to face the front. The benches in the balcony are designed the same way, but their height above the stage can offer some better sightlines. Kechley also noted that plans were at one time in place to improve Chapin.

When the Bernhard Music Center was built in 1978, “there were three phases to the project and phase three was a renovation of Chapin to make it more usable for concerts. Unfortunately that phase was left on the back burner.” With the theater and dance center, Baxter renovation, and Stetson/Sawyer renovation in the works, it is highly unlikely that this lost project will be revisited.

Brooks-Rogers Hall sits next-door to Chapin; its acoustics are not perfect, but they are still a big improvement over its sister hall.

Much smaller in size, Brooks-Rogers is used primarily for smaller events such as recitals, as well as the introductory art history lectures.

According to Kechley, “Brooks-Rogers is pretty clear in its acoustics, but is a little too brittle and bright. The ceiling should have been higher and more attention [should have been] paid to the acoustics when it was designed and built. It also suffers from the compromise of trying to make it be both a classroom and performance space.”

“The bottom line is that we are better off than some schools, but if Williams strives to be excellent in all things, i.e., number one, we certainly do not measure up to that standard in terms of the performing spaces,” Kechley said. “I think we actually do measure up when it comes to what we put in those spaces. I would be surprised to hear an orchestra. . .that would seriously rival ours. That’s the good news.”