Distance Learning: Performing Arts

July 20, 2004
A/V Interiors
Carnegie Hall in New York City has long been a temple for world-class music. Now, with broadcast technology included in the renovation of a third performance space, Zankel Hall, it is possible to share the wealth of concerts, recitals, master classes, and lectures with audiences all across the globe via an innovative long-distance learning system designed by Shen Milsom & Wilke, working hand-in-hand with Polshek Partnership Architects.When Carnegie Hall was built in 1891 there were, in fact, three venues in the building, one of which was a small recital space below street level. Over the decades it was used for various purposes, including as a movie theater. It has now been enlarged — by blasting into the city’s bedrock — and once again serves as a music venue, with flexible seating configurations for a maximum capacity of 644 patrons. The auditorium of Zankel Hall has been referred to as a buried treasure. The architects clad the walls and floor in warm woods, and the architectural lighting designers from Auerbach Glasow in San Francisco added slender, edge-lit glass sconces along the balcony fronts for sparkle. There is also a flexible theatrical lighting system, with automated lighting fixtures, that adapts to the various configurations of the hall. This was designed in conjunction with Alan Adelman, a lighting designer who frequently works at Carnegie Hall.One of the directives for Zankel Hall was that it double as an educational venue, reaching out to those who can not easily attend performances in New York City or do not have ready access to the performing arts. This required an innovative, high-tech system to facilitate this kind of long-distance learning, with more than twenty-five educational events scheduled in the first year alone, such as global encounters that match South African performers with schoolchildren in Alaska. “This is an interesting example of non-traditional technology brought into the concert hall,” notes Robert Badenoch, system designer and project manager for Zankel Hall at Shen Milsom & Wilke’s New York office. “A typical distance learning event may involve children in a classroom elsewhere in the world and an audience of children in Zankel Hall,” he continues. “The long-distance learning system is based on broadcast and teleconferencing technology. What we are doing is putting videoconferencing technology into a concert hall context.” Zankel Hall’s performing arts systems were designed by theater consultants Auerbach Pollock Friedlander, which firm also served as acoustical consultant. Systems integrator Vistacom of Allentown, Pa., handled the distance learning system, which is similar to videoconferencing in that events are recorded with cameras and microphones at both ends, and displayed at the opposite end.Zankel Hall’s system offers additional capabilities, including Internet connectivity that allows Web-casting of performances. In addition, signals may be routed to Carnegie Hall’s recording studio, allowing technicians to introduce voice-overs, talking heads, and other special effects. Remote control panels with three-axis joysticks (pan, tilt, and zoom) permit smooth camera movement.“One of our early concerns was whether the cameras should be fixed or portable,” says Badenoch, weighing the concerns of finding space for six permanently installed cameras versus the costs of stagehand labor to install them each time they would be used. “The final answer is some of both,” he points out, with the system calling for four cameras mounted when needed on tripods in the theater. Another camera is permanently installed on a motorized lift in the projection booth at the back of the house for wide-stage shots, and the sixth camera is located in a voice-over booth that is part of a recording studio/control room on the third floor. The latter does not have a direct view of the stage, but serves as part of the videoconferencing system via video monitors. The cameras in the Hall are used to film both the stage and the audience, as part of bi-directional conferences. “The system is designed to be as flexible as the hall itself,” says Badenoch. “There is a single coaxial cable to each of the cameras, with all the connection boxes concealed neatly in the architecture of the space.” There are two permanent 22 by 17-foot motorized projection screens, one located so that it rolls down along the upstage wall of the theater, and the other placed further downstage for alternate seating configurations. A single digital projector, mounted on a scissor-lift, is used with both screens. Additional viewing is provided by two 42-inch plasma screens that are placed on portable stands. “These serve as visual monitors for performers such as orchestra members who cannot see the screen behind them,” Badenoch explains. “They can also be used as supplemental screens for the audience to see graphics or additional camera views.”Production values for the different events can vary, requiring varying numbers of cameras and staff. Producers, directors, switching technicians, and other specialists can be involved with the production, or the entire operation can be consolidated and automated with a single operator via a single touchscreen in the control room. “There can be as many as twelve on the production crew or just three, a director and two cameras,” notes Badenoch. An important element in the production is the outgoing audio mix which takes place in the third-floor control room, connected to the theater via fiber optic cable. “This audio mix is totally independent from the sound engineer who is mixing the sound that the audience hears in the hall,” Badenoch explains. “The audio technician on the third floor controls what goes out of the building and what comes back in from other locations. He feeds the incoming sound back to the engineer in the hall. Everything is totally bi-directional.” Badenoch says designing Zankel Hall’s long-distance learning system required asking the right questions: Is there room for a camera here? What are the routing concerns? “In this case, the conduit was so dense I could walk on it before they even poured the concrete,” he says. “In addition, they were digging into bedrock. Every inch was important.” He adds that the success of such a technology-heavy program depends on the staff and how well they are trained.“We designed the system to be very flexible, from very simple to very high-tech,” he says. “There is a learning curve and there can be difficulties running ISDN connections across the ocean.“Zankel Hall is unique in that the systems that make the long-distance learning possible are a permanent fixture of the space. This allows Carnegie Hall to put forward its vision for the future of arts education, and share the arts via technology. It’s a very ambitious program.”

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