The Stoller Hall provides a fitting coda to Stephenson Studio’s Chetham’s School of Music
In reviewing Stephenson Studio’s new building for Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester for Architecture Today in 2012, Tim Ronalds observed that the “400-seat concert hall is as yet a great blockwork and concrete void awaiting £5m of funding”. Five years later, the £8.7m, 482-seat Stoller Hall has opened, thanks largely to the Stoller Charitable Trust, whose founder invented the tubular bandage.
Both to celebrate the opening of the hall and to demonstrate the versatility of its acoustic provision, a range of performances were held over a weekend. These culminated in a concert on St George’s Day featuring Chetham’s Chamber Orchestra, drawn from the school’s students, Manchester Chamber Choir, and guest players including alumni mezzo soprano Kitty Whateley and pianist Paul Lewis, and conductor Mark Elder.
The hall is approached from the building’s entrance facing Victoria Station. Happily for last-minute concertgoers, access to the both the stalls and the balcony is just inside the foyer: the former along a short corridor then via the lift or stairs down to the upper basement level; the latter directly from the foyer, immediately before it opens out into the first-phase triangular atrium, now completed with a bar. Public and educational spaces within the school are necessarily separate to allow flexibility in schedules.
Subtly lozenge-shaped in plan, the hall opens out from its rear entrance wall and gently gathers in again around the stage. Some concertgoers seemed surprised at the effectiveness of the acoustic design, despite the evident hard surfaces of timber flooring and wall panelling, and painted plasterboard walls and ceiling.
Stephenson Studio’s brief was to create a world-class symphonic space that would also accommodate speech and amplified music. Arup Acoustics’ requirement that the wall surfaces be not too regular has been effectively interpreted in the architectural detail. Roger Stephenson says that as acoustic design has become more sophisticated and prescriptive, it is increasingly challenging to make a convivial space for the audience.
Here, all the surfaces do a different job. The walls have to be solid with no voids behind, while the plasterboard ceiling hides a large void to absorb low frequencies and prevent booming. Timber wall linings also help decay the sound. The profiles of the oiled white oak panels to the side of the stage are narrower than those around the auditorium. The irregularity in the profiles carries a pleasing suggestion of the ribbed boards of linenfold panelling, appropriate to a school whose original buildings date from the fifteenth century. Profiled plaster finishes, from ribs to pilaster forms and coving, complement the Art Moderne curves of the building’s exterior.
At the back of the stage a series of vertical slats incorporate a sliding device that opens to expose black absorbent material between the timbers. Automated acoustic roller blinds high up on the walls can be lowered to moderate the reverberance, and can also be used for projected imagery.
Acoustic isolation is achieved by the ‘box within a box’ construction. A steel structure supports the concert hall, technical lofts and basement floor, itself sitting on tuned acoustic mounts. Flexibility of use is enhanced by a two-stage riser and the stalls’ forestage riser which incorporates a 90-seat wagon that can be stowed in the lower basement.
The St George’s Day concert included excerpts from William Walton’s score for Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V. The accompanying speeches, performed by actor Samuel West, commenced with the play’s prologue that aptly includes the line ‘Turning th’accomplishment of many years into an hour glass.’ The Stoller Hall played its role perfectly, supplying each instrumental and spoken part with aural clarity.
Price & Myers
Sir Robert McAlpine
Chetham’s School of Music
Stall and choir seating
Theatre lighting, sound installation
Stage riser, seating wagon, equipment
Centre Stage Engineering