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In The Tense Race to Finish The Meyerson, Acoustician Russell Johnson Struggles To Hear.

by Quin Mathews 8 Sep 2014 6:03 PM

Contributor Quin Mathews takes us back in this installment of “Secrets of the Meyerson.”


  • KERA’s Dane Walters had some fun making the Meyerson move to music. Watch the video.
  • Learn more about Johnson’s innovations like the reverberation chamber and the acoustic canopy – and make them move! – at Art&Seek’s interactive website Secrets of the Meyerson.
  • There are numerous events this week marking the Meyerson’s anniversary. Here’s a list.
  • Listen to Quin Mathews’ radio story that aired on KERA FM


Russell Johnson. Photo: "Frozen Music"/KERA

Russell Johnson. Photo: “Frozen Music”/KERA

The race to finish the Meyerson was tense, especially for acoustician Russell Johnson. This afternoon, KERA contributor Quin Mathews takes us back as Johnson struggled to hear his handiwork.


Many musicians have praised the acoustics of the Meyerson Symphony Center as among the best in the world. Contributor Quin Mathews remembers the tense days before the hall openening.

In September 1989, acoustician Russell Johnson looked worried. He was trying to hear the acoustics of the new hall he had designed, but the sound of noise was winning out over the sound of silence.

The Meyerson Symphony Center was far different from the Fair Park hall it replaced. Instead of a fan-shaped auditorium seating 34 hundred, Johnson’s design called for two thousand, based on the great old halls of Europe.

“They usually seat anywhere between 1100 and 2200 concertgoers,” said Johnson. “Almost without exception in the mid-section of the room they are parallel and rather narrow. They tend to be rather long and rather high. They almost always are constructed of very heavy masonry, and about 95% of the best sounding rooms have plaster walls and plaster ceilings.”

But there was one thing Johnson did that was different. He made adjustable halls.

“There is really no such animal as excellent acoustics which works for all the symphonic literature,” he said.

So the Meyerson got adjustable reverberation chambers and a giant, moveable 42-ton canopy over the stage to vary the way sound decays. The idea is that what you hear is not coming directly from the stage.

“Very, very little of the sound you hear in the audience is coming to you directly from the stage, perhaps as little as 15 to 20 percent of the sound energy is coming to you directly from the instruments. All the rest is coming from multiple reflections from the walls, the ledges and the ceiling—and the canopy.”

In 2004, three years before Johnson’s death, I asked how he would rank the Meyerson among his halls.

“All these halls turn out somewhat different from each other. It’s inevitable. They all sound different, therefore there’s really no way to compare them or rank order them. Are you pleased? I’m never pleased.”

He laughs.

“I was born not pleased.”