April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
A faded industrial town in upstate New York is home to one of the world’s greatest concert halls
Troy, New York, has always had its sleeves rolled up to its biceps. Lying along the Hudson River and part of a metropolitan area that includes both Albany, the state capital, and Schenectady, the city marks the Erie Canal’s eastern terminus. When that waterway was completed in 1825, Troy floated into an era of prosperity.
Troy was once a manufacturing center for iron products like stoves and horseshoes, but the city became nationally famous as the country’s leading maker of shirt collars and cuffs. Beer and beef were important local industries, and Troy was home to Samuel Wilson, who supplied the Army with meat during the War of 1812. Wilson stamped all government purchases “U.S.,” for United States, but the initials may also have stood for his nickname, Uncle Sam, which is why Troy claims to have spawned the mythic character. Troy had its gentry, of course, people who occupied the handsome townhouses that still line Washington Park, a fenced-in square reserved for the residents who live along its edges and have keys to its gate. In spite of such posh pockets, though, working-class homes and industrial buildings like the old Arrow shirt factory north of the Collar City Bridge typify Troy. For that reason visitors are often surprised to learn that the city houses one of the greatest concert halls in existence, an auditorium with acoustics so remarkable that it vies with Boston’s glorious Symphony Hall and the Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna.
Notes played and sung in the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, which sits atop the bank’s headquarters in the city’s downtown district, project throughout the space with a warmth and clarity that has astounded serious listeners and seasoned musicians alike. The conductor George Szell called it the best hall he ever played in and vowed to stand in front with arms outstretched if it was ever scheduled for demolition. The auditorium’s lush sound moved another great conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, to declare he would perform there free.
Shortly after the Civil War the Troy Savings Bank needed a new home, and its board members decided on a building that would also include a community concert hall. Though such gestures were not unknown in Gilded Age America, this one was particularly grand. Those who attended the 1875 premiere sat beneath a lofty ceiling adorned with frescoes, and the chandelier crowning the space glittered with fourteen thousand hand-cut French prisms mirroring the light of 260 gas burners. (The city’s fire marshal ordered the last of those lamps removed in 1928 after a ballerina’s headdress burst into flames.)
George B. Post, the New York Clty architect who designed the hall, based it on similar European structures, and that was fortunate. Though the science of acoustics has advanced since then, the great nineteenthcentury halls often project sound better than their modern counterparts. Acoustical experts can point with certainty to traits that help make the Troy hall a sonic marvel. One is its long (125-foot), narrow (65-foot), high-ceilinged (61-foot) shoebox shape. Another is its modest size; it seems the best-sounding concert venues seat no more than 2,800, and the Troy facility was built to hold just 1,253. Period architectural embellishment also favors the house, since an abundance of ornament creates irregular interior surfaces that scatter sound waves. Christopher Jaffe, an acoustician, told the music critic Harold Schonberg that the structure’s wooden floor and ceiling were important contributors to sound quality. Together they “vibrate like the belly of a violin.”
Schonberg’s 1971 visit to Troy coincided with rumors that the bank property, bleeding red ink, was in grave danger, and his rave reviews of “sound you could reach out and touch” galvanized community leaders. They began to explore ways of reviving the Music Hall, which then held just twenty-five to thirty concerts a year. By the end of the 1970s, a newly formed nonprofit group, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Corporation, was leasing the facility, which now operates in the black. The number of events held there each season has since doubled, and a company called Dorian has recorded more than a hundred compact disks in the hall over the last decade, giving it another source of revenue.
Dorian’s founders, Craig D. Dory and Brian M. Levine, based their record company in Troy in order to take advantage of the Music Hall’s vaunted sound, and their label quickly became a household word among audiophiles. Levine is certain the hall’s acoustics have enhanced the performances his company’s disks preserve. Musicians “spend a good deal of their lives fighting substandard environments,” he explains, “and they learn to protect themselves by holding back in some ways.”
The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall is known for its ability to project sound, both to the audience and among performers themselves. (Musicians should be able to hear the colleagues with whom they’re playing.) When the hall is silent, those seated in the balcony 125 feet from the stage can literally hear a dropped pin hit the boards. At most loudness levels, tones are warm, rich, full, and startlingly clear. For those reasons, Levine says, the hall “really unleashes every bit of creativity. It unlocks the ability of artists to do exactly what they want.”
The Music Hall continues to surprise visitors, who enter through a small ground-floor foyer that promises nothing; the bank expanded to share the original entrance area many decades back. You climb a simple flight of steps, then discover an amazing space. If more than a century ago the Music Hall was a princess, it’s now a dowager who retains a few of her youthful attributes: Multistory stained-glass windows continue to cast a glow on the lobby, and the ornate iron staircase climbing to the balcony level reminds visitors of Troy’s cast-iron heritage. The narrow vintage seats are also framed in iron and, as the holes here and there reveal, are still covered in their original leather. Refurbishing or replacing the old seating would add comfort but would be costly, and it could cramp the auditorium’s sonic signature.
In his autobiography, Down From Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age , Richard Selzer, a retired surgeon, recalls the music he heard in the city’s streets as a Depression-era child: “Every house was equipped with an upright piano upon which someone was always practicing the scales.” Selzer’s mother was an enthusiastic amateur vocalist who sang on the stage of the Music Hall, and he makes note of the fact that “a whispered aside from the back of the stage can be heard in the uppermost row of the balcony.” Members of the classical music pantheon who performed there included such famous singers as Marian Anderson and Lotte Lehmann, the pianists Josef Hofmann, Myra Hess, and Sergey Rachmaninoff, the violinist Nathan Milstein, and the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.
Thanks to the concerted efforts of many citizens and businesses—including a bank that hasn’t always based decisions on bottom-line considerations and a record company known for superb sound as well as fine performances—music lovers continue to attend concerts in the superb acoustic environment of the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and take resonant memories home.