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After 105 years, BSO to enter a new stage

Officials hope to replace floor, not acoustics

By Richard Dyer
Globe Staff / August 6, 2006

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Much has changed in Symphony Hall since its opening on Oct. 15, 1900. The public areas have repeatedly been redecorated, and in the auditorium the windows above the second balcony were blacked out and covered during World War II.

But the stage floor has never been replaced, until now.

After more than two years of planning by Boston Symphony Orchestra music director James Levine, management, staff, and musicians, the floorboards came up in July and new planks will be put down this week. The rebuilt floor will be ready for the opening of the next season on Sept. 29.

The maple floor has an almost mystical reputation among musicians because of its fundamental contribution to the hall's acoustics, though in many eras the presence of risers on stage for the orchestra diminished that impact.

A notorious stage-floor disaster in the 1986 renovation of New York's Carnegie Hall left a fear of tampering with the Symphony Hall floor. It was widely felt that the renovation had ruined the acoustics; it turned out that a layer of concrete had been poured beneath the new stage floor. The concrete was finally removed from the hall in 1995.

BSO managing director Mark Volpe says the decision to replace the floor was driven by ``safety considerations."

``People ask me, `Why are replacing the floor now?' " Volpe said. ``A better question is `What took us so long?' "

On a recent tour of the stage before work began, orchestra manager Ray Wellbaum and stage manager John Demick pointed out some of the problems.

The floor was uneven and pockmarked by a century's worth of stabbing cello and string bass end-pins, rolling pianos, risers coming onstage and off. Boards squeak when you walk on them and some are close to buckling.

Nobody knows how many layers of varnish and polyurethane have built up on the floor to create its deep-caramel color, but the surface is peeling and rough. Demick pointed out a large, square trap door cut in the middle of the stage floor; no one knows what it was used for.

``What we are talking about is 105 years of bad maintenance," Demick says.

Planning for the $250,000 project began more than two years ago, long before Levine's fall, which was on the stage extension, not on the stage itself.

Prior to making any decisions, Wellbaum contacted other major concert halls of Symphony Hall's rank and importance. The Musikverein in Vienna has replaced its stage floor about every 40 years since the hall was opened in 1870, most recently in 1987. It needed to because the original floor was not made of first-quality wood and it was very soft.

Reluctant to change anything, those in charge of the Viennese hall have always replaced the floor with comparably soft wood. No adverse effect on the acoustics has been noted.

The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which opened in 1888, has also replaced its floor several times, most recently in 1988. The hall has been careful to use the same kind of wood, of the same thickness and the same approach to construction, so the replacement floors have never created a problem.

The BSO plans to follow the same approach as the European halls -- no concrete will be added.

The floor is hard maple, tongue-in-groove, three-quarters of an inch thick, so the new floor will be hard maple of the same shape and thickness. Hand-cut nails of the same type and size used in the original construction will be employed in the same pattern, and they will be hand-pounded -- no pneumatic hammers. There will be no change to the angled rough planks of the subfloor, each plane 7 1/2 inches wide, or to the supporting structural system.

Specialists in several fields have been called in for studies and advice, including the acoustical firm Acentech Inc. and Wood Advisory Services Inc. of Millbrook, N.Y.

In a phone interview, Al De Bonis of Wood Advisory Services says the company has been analyzing the species of wood and geometry of the floorboards, based on samples it took out of the floor.

``The idea," De Bonis said, ``was to learn about and evaluate what we currently have and to replace it with materials as close as possible to what's worked so well for more than a century."

That includes a layer of felt between the floor and the subfloor that minimizes squeaking. ``We will duplicate the thickness of the original," De Bonis said.

Changes in the weather cause changes in the dimensions of floorboards, which swell when the humidity goes up. De Bonis says the project has been carefully monitoring the humidity and temperature in Symphony Hall and its effect on hard maple. It is important to make allowances for future expansion and contraction, and the new lumber arrived early in an effort to acclimate it to the building. Installation of the new floor will continue into early next month.

No one is saying that there will be no impact on the acoustics.

``People do hear with their eyes, and the one thing we cannot duplicate is 100 layers of varnish, or however many there are," Wellbaum said. ``The new floor will be lighter in color -- we don't want to stain it -- so some people will believe they are hearing a brighter sound."

Last summer, one especially problematic area was patched, just inside the stage left entrance through which the 1,000-pound pianos roll. This was a kind of rehearsal for the whole project. Beginning July 12, the patch came out, along with the rest of the floor.

``We are not going to demolish it," Wellbaum said. ``We are going to disassemble it so we can see exactly how it was put together in the first place."

The orchestra has saved the floorboards and plans to polish them, and sell small pieces as mementos and souvenirs. Says Wellbaum: ``There's lot of history there."