Friday, August 10, 2007

Russell Johnson, 83; innovative acoustician for classical music venues

By Elaine Woo August 10, 2007

Russell Johnson, whose inventive approach to the acoustic design of major performance venues allowed halls around the world to adjust to the requirements of a symphony or a jazz ensemble, has died. He was 83.

The founder of Artec Consultants, Johnson was found dead in his New York City apartment Tuesday after he failed to show up at his office. He died in his sleep, said Tateo Nakajima, one of Artec's managing directors. Johnson had completed more than 140 projects since opening his own acoustics and theater design firm 37 years ago.

He was best-known for his work on concert halls, including the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, Symphony Hall in Birmingham, England, and Lucerne Concert Hall in Switzerland. One of his most recent projects was the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, which opened last year in Costa Mesa. "The overriding impression and lasting feeling about Russell was he devoted his life to making the art of acoustics into a science," philanthropist Henry Segerstrom said Thursday. "We all talk about the art of the acoustics. He wanted the art to be a science. He had absolute dedication to the perfection of acoustics."

Johnson, said Cesar Pelli, the renowned architect who collaborated with Johnson on Segerstrom Concert Hall and the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, "truly understood acoustics. He just had an incredible ear and extraordinary understanding of what makes theaters be alive with music -- not just the mechanics of the music but all of the psychological aspects."

An innovator who looked to the past for inspiration, Johnson drew basic principles from the great 19th-century concert halls of Europe. He found that the ones most cherished by musicians had certain elements in common, chief among them size -- they held no more than 2,000 seats -- and a shoe-box shape. To these parameters Johnson added features such as flexible, sound-cushioning canopies above the orchestra, reverberation chambers with doors that open and close, and a system of motorized curtains, all of which can be individually adjusted to customize the sound quality of a room."I believe that you cannot, should not, design opera houses and concert halls for the next century unless you really understand the last three centuries of the design of this type of building," he told Canada's National Post in 2002.