Symphony Hall

Like an impeccably maintained vintage Rolls Royce that’s been painstakingly and thoroughly modernized – and boasts acoustical perfection rivaled by only two other live-music venues on Earth – Symphony Hall’s grandeur and unqualified global acclaim make it the perfect vehicle for two of the most prestigious orchestras in the world. Cherished in an almost indescribable way by musicians and music lovers – in the same semi-divine sense that Fenway Park is by Red Sox fans – the Hall has been one of New England’s most brightly glittering gems since it opened over 120 years ago.

And while it’s renowned as the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and the Boston Pops Orchestra (“the Pops”) – and for regular concerts performed there by the Boston’s Grammy-winning Handel and Haydn Society – Symphony Hall has also hosted an expansive range of non-symphonic talent – from swing, folk and blues to jazz, pop and rock – including many headliners deeply rooted in New England such as Joan Baez (1964, 1985, 2011), Jim Kweskin and The Jug Band (1963, 1966), Eric von Schmidt (1966), Van Morrison (1969, 1970), The J. Geils Band (1969, 1970), Chick Corea (1974, 1978, 2007) James Taylor (1976, 1993, 1998, 2010), Tracy Chapman (1988), Michael Bolton (2002), Guster (2005) and Tom Rush (1966, 1967, 1971, 1973, 1981), who in 2001 released a collection of songs recorded at his 1981 concert, Live at Symphony Hall, Boston.

Opened on October 15, 1900, construction of Symphony Hall began on June 12, 1899, after extensive, extremely noisy street- and subway-building projects had started near the Boston Music Hall – now the Orpheum Theatre – which was the home of the BSO and the Pops since their respective founding in 1881 and 1885. The Hall was completed on schedule at a cost of $771,000 ($26.4M in 2022).

Modeled on the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, Germany – which was destroyed during World War II – Symphony Hall became one of the first venues designed using scientifically derived acoustical principles after its architects – the New York firm McKim, Mead and White, which also designed the Boston Public Library and the Rhode Island State House – hired as their acoustical consultant Wallace Clement Sabine, an assistant professor of physics at Harvard. The Hall is widely recognized as having the finest acoustics of any live-music venue in the United States and is placed among the top-three concert halls in the world in terms of acoustical design, the others being Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Musikvereinsaal in Vienna.

Located at 301 Massachusetts Avenue – with the Berklee College of Music one block to the north and the New England Conservatory of Music one block to the south – Symphony Hall seats 2,625 people for BSO concerts and 2,370 for the Pops, since for their concerts the floor area is arranged into café-style seating per BSO and Pops founder Henry Lee Higginson’s objective to create “the ambiance of summer evenings in Viennese concert gardens.” Inscribed directly above the stage is Beethoven’s name – the only composer whose name appears anywhere in the Hall because the original directors couldn’t agree on any others – and the leather seats today are the original ones from 1900. Symphony Hall has been a National Historic Landmark since 1999, and in 2006 the maple stage flooring was replaced using all the same methods and materials used 106 years before to preserve the Hall’s acoustical sublimity.

The list of non-BSO and non-Pops concerts held at Symphony Hall through the decades is a fascinating snapshot of America’s ever-evolving musical landscape over almost five generations. Between opening in 1900 until the mid-1930s, the performances were dominated by opera singers, usually sopranos, like Adelina Patti (Italy), Emma Calvé ‘(France), Nellie Melba (Australia), Rosa Ponsell (a Connecticut native), Lillian Nordica (a Maine native) and Marian Anderson (a contralto from Philadelphia).

Others appearing on the Hall’s stage in its first 30 years were legendary composer, conductor and piano virtuoso Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1909, 1919), the “Father of Spanish Classic Guitar” Andrés Segovia (1928), and trailblazing French composer, conductor and pianist Maurice Ravel (1928), in addition to organist Clarence Eddy, a Massachusetts native, French violinist Henri Marteau, Russian violinist Mischa Elman, Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, British singer-actor Louis Graveure and American bass-baritone Paul Robeson. From 1910 to 1915, the New York Philharmonic played an annual concert at the Hall.

In 1938, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra became the first non-classical, non-operatic act to hit the Symphony Hall stage, followed by scores of others over the next 80-plus years. While the French-American opera singer Lily Pons and Chilean classical pianist Claudio Arrau León appeared in 1940 and 1942 respectively, jazz combos, singers and big bands dominated later in the decade and throughout the 1950s including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, The Charlie Parker Quintet, Ray Charles, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton and Louis Armstrong, who released two live albums recorded at the Hall in November, 1947, his debut performance at the venue, Satchmo in Boston Vol. 1 (1959) and Satchmo in Boston Vol. 2 (1960).

In the 1960s, jazz singers and groups continued to appear regularly at Symphony Hall, but with the folk-music craze in full-swing through much of the decade, folk acts took to the stage more often than not. Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and The Modern Jazz Quartet played there several more times – and Stan Getz, Tony Bennett, Mahalia Jackson and Art Blakey made their Symphony Hall debuts – but folk was the de facto mainstay and an eye-popping list of talent performed at least once including Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Weavers, The New Lost City Ramblers, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, The Smothers Brothers, The Limeliters, John Sebastian and Tom Paxton.

In the 1970s, while folk acts like Tom Rush, Pete Seeger and Judy Collins made several more appearances, roots, fusion, rock and pop became more prevalent with acts such as The Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, The Band, Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, Barry Manilow, David Bromberg, John Prine, The Bee Gees, Hall & Oates, The Carpenters, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith Group, Lou Rawls, Herbie Hancock and Al Jarreau.

In the 1980s and 1990s, while folk icon Harry Chapin performed in 1980 and old-school crooners Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett both returned in 1983 and 1987, the roster became more of a smorgasbord than ever featuring acts as varied as Buddy Rich, Roy Orbison, Keith Jarrett, Nina Simone, Bobby McFerrin, the Phillip Glass Ensemble, Patti LaBelle, Andreas Vollenweider, Paco de Lucía, Al Di Meola & John McLaughlin, Kodō, Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet, Nana Mouskouri, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Brian Wilson, Ravi Shankar, The Chieftains, and Liza Minelli, who played a sold-out five-night stand in September 1992, a Symphony Hall record.

In the 2000s, Symphony Hall concerts continued to be as multigenred as popular music itself, with acts including Aretha Franklin, Harry Connick, Jr., B.B. King, the Winton Marsalis Quartet, Art Garfunkel, My Morning Jacket, Barenaked Ladies, Pink Martini, Ben Folds, Cowboy Junkies, Goo Goo Dolls, Annie Lennox, The B-52s, Ricky Skaggs, Natalie Merchant, Sonny Rollins, Indigo Girls, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Itzhak Perlman and former Boston Pops Principal Conductor John Williams.

A prime example of how respected, even beloved, Symphony Hall is to musicians is a 2019 comment from Douglas Yao, who spent 27 years as bass-trombonist for the BSO and was a faculty member at the New England Conservatory: “Having played in Vienna [at Musikvereinsaal] and Amsterdam [at Concertgebouw],” he wrote, “I can say that Symphony Hall is simply the finest concert hall in which I have ever performed.”

(by D.S. Monahan)

Published on July 6, 2022

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