This lively reverberance, though, is tamed by technology. Along each side of the room, fabric-covered fiberglass panels sit on tracks in thin silos under the floor and can be raised to absorb sound reflections. Also, on the side balconies and on the clerestory level, several heavy (32 ounce weight per yard) draperies are stored in curtain pockets. All of these acoustical tools are automated, and eventually their controller will have single-button configurations for various types of performances.

The Schermerhorn uses technology not just to enhance the acoustics inside, but to block noise from outside. The hall is a building-within-a- building, with a two-inch acoustical gap running between the inner and outer shells. All noise-generating systems, such as the HVAC, rest on absorptive neoprene-puck foundations in the basement, where the ground mass also helps stabilize them; in some cases (such as ductwork and pipes), they are also supported by ceiling hangers. When potentially disruptive noise has an unavoidable track into the shoebox—such as through the HVAC system—it encounters ducting that is lagged on the outside with two layers of gypsum board and has fiberglass lining.


One of the Schermerhorn's most radical design features is its convertible floor space. The audience seats are arrayed on eight massive “chair wagons”—movable platforms that are roughly 60 feet wide by 15 feet deep. (The most famous chair wagon in the country is the bandwagon at Radio City Music Hall, installed in 1933, which still moves the orchestra forward during Rockettes performances.) Each of the Schermerhorn chair wagons, independently powered by small electric motors, rolls—guided by side rails—from its place on the floor toward the front of the house.

Just in front of the stage, where the lowest-raked of the chair wagons will sit, the floor is actually an elevator whose area is just slightly larger than that of a chair wagon. One by one, the platforms can be lowered, via a spiral lift (a self-extending, screw-type device), to the basement below the audience area. They are then rolled off in reverse order from their rake, revealing a 5,770-square-foot open floor that can be used as a ballroom. And it became just that on Sept. 9, 2006, for the Schermerhorn's formal opening ceremony, when a performance by the symphony gave way to an evening of dancing on the floor. The changeover time was less than an hour.

“This is more than just your typical symphonic concert hall,” says architect Randy S. Nale, of architect-of-record Earl Swensson Associates. “This convertible floor makes it a multiuse space, but it never compromises its primary purpose of being the home of a symphony orchestra.”

The design of the chair wagons, which was specified by the theaterdesign consultants Fisher Dachs Associates of New York City and fabricated by J.R. Clancy, a stage-rigging manufacturer in Syracuse, N.Y., is as complex as it is clever. The fact that each one weighs more than 30,000 pounds is not an accident. “We needed mass, and lots of it,” says Scarbrough. “The purpose was to avoid creating a membrane in the floor of each unit that could resonate in response to the music and suck the low-frequency energy out of the room.” Thus, each chair wagon has a heavy tubular metal frame, on top of which are layered a ¼-inch steel plate and hardwood floorboards.

Joe Mobilia, an associate principal at Fisher Dachs, says one major challenge was to move the massive load across the main floor without damaging it. “The chair wagons were moving across a polished floor that had to always look good, and wheels could cause ruts or dents in the floor,” he explains. The solution was several rows of 6-inch-wide steel rollers on which the mass of each wagon would be more evenly distributed. Technicians at J.R. Clancy then devised the sprocket-andchain guide system, and they created a scaled mockup of a Schermerhorn chair wagon that was run over a wood surface for several thousand cycles to test for potential damage to the flooring.

The Grand Tour

On their European tour, David Schwarz and Paul Scarbrough visited classic concert halls in five cities: Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Zurich. Back in the United States, they also dropped in on Boston Symphony Hall. “We listened to a concert in each of them,” says project acoustician Scarbrough. “They were in quick enough succession that you could grasp the differences between them, as well as what they had in common that made them such great concert halls.”

From each stop, Schwarz and Scarbrough drew inspiration for elements of the Schermerhorn's design:

  • From Vienna's Musikvereinssaal: The hall's rich reverberance, sonic impact, and ample natural light.
  • From Amsterdam's Concertgebouw: The permanent choral seating behind the orchestra and the reverberant characteristics.
  • From Berlin's Konzerthaus and from Vienna's Konzerthaus: The gracious series of public spaces around each hall.
  • From Zurich's Tonhalle: The dynamic impact of sound in a small hall.
  • From Barcelona's Palau de la Música Catalana: The incredible natural light and the richness of the visual environment.
  • From Boston Symphony Hall: The use of two side tiers to promote good balance between reverberance and clarity.
  • Dan Daley is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

    Schermerhorn Symphony Center

    Architect: David M. Schwarz/Architectural Services, Washington, D.C.; David M. Schwarz, principal

    Acoustician: Akustiks, Norwalk, Conn.; Paul Scarbrough, principal

    Architect of Record: Earl Swensson Associates, Nashville, Tenn.

    Consulting Architect: Hastings Architecture Associates, Nashville

    Construction: American Constructors, Nashville