Arhus leadThe organ in the Aarhus Musikhuset, the Aarhus Music House, has 3200 pipes. If you’re into organs this is an impressive number. Only a fraction of them are on display, and when it was being installed the folk doing it told everyone here that an instrument is not an instrument unless you can walk around in it. This organ can go down to 16 Hertz, bass so low you feel it rather than hear it. It thoroughly earns the adjective that is thrust on so many lesser organs; this is indeed a mighty organ.

I listened as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was played on it, a very loose transcription to be sure but really interesting, and the 16 Hertz depth was plumbed three times. And each time all the hairs on my neck and arms stood rigidly to attention. This was truly exciting music and the most interesting thing about it was that I wasn’t in the concert hall at the time, I was downstairs in the recording control centre of the House listening to the rehearsal through a chain of microphones, analogue to digital converters, optical fibre cables, mixing equipment, digital to analogue converters, amplifiers and finally, two monitor speakers built to specification by the speaker manufacturer just down the road, a place called Dynaudio. There may be many a slip twixt cup and lip Arhus cbut none of them were in evidence in this chain of equipment, a fact that truly came home a few minutes later when I went into the concert hall and listened to the rest of the rehearsal with the organ right there in front of me. The sound was identical.

The Aarhus Music House is an amazing place not least because it’s in Aarhus, a city of just 300,000 in central Denmark. Its restaurant serves the best smorrebrod, Denmark’s traditional open sandwiches, I’ve ever had and I’ve had lots of smorrebrod. Get into the place and there are 500 rooms, four concert halls, a music school, a recording studio, I even spotted a ping pong table. The recording facilities are enough to drive your average muso into fits of the greenest envy. Because the concert halls are all wired you can place the various components of a recording in the acoustic that best suits them. Choirs can go to the one with the airiest acoustic, woodwinds to another, strings to the third and percussion by itself in the fourth. It’s all controlled in a single room that’s packed solid with monitors, panels, amplifiers and computers throwing to a couple of huge screens. The guys in here talk about microphones like most guys talk about women.

Arhus bThe control room is down amongst a cluster of soundproof rehearsal rooms, the little red lights outside each door telling you that work is going on in there and no disturbance is to be tolerated. The number of red lights illuminated on the Tuesday afternoon I was there was sufficient to tell me that Aarhus is a town that takes its music seriously.

So seriously that it controls the temperature and humidity of the main concert hall, taking 3000 people, close enough to suggest that it never changes at all, even when 3000 large, soft bodies shuffle in and settle into the acoustically neutral seating. It does this by having a vent under every seat and a massive air expulsion system above. At full stretch this system can completely change the air inside the hall every ten minutes, and even when it’s operating flat out it remains entirely silent. Well, silent in the concert hall anyway.

The sharp-eyed among you may have noticed in the picture that the walls are both grey and red. The wall panels are interchangeable and each colour has a different rate of sound absorption and reflection. In some concerts the reds out-number the greys, when I was there the grey was dominant. Or it can be all red or all grey.

Arhus dThe performer’s dressing rooms have received special attention, the idea being that if performers enjoy their experience in Aarhus they’ll tell other performers who will then want to perform here, bringing their fans and their kronor. So the rooms are large and well equipped with couches, easy chairs, make-up mirrors and, interestingly, a Marshall amplifier and speaker built into the wall. Ask why these are here and you discover the great secret of the Aarhus dressing rooms – the Marshall equipment is nothing but a disguise worn by the fridge door.

There’s a can-do attitude in this place that is inspiring. A visiting Chinese theatre requested that, if possible, a traditional Chinese ornamental lake be part of the set, expecting the usual offering of chipboard and silver paper, but in here they converted the orchestra pit into an actual lake, importing 40,000 litres of water, a couple of dozen carp and even a few live ducks that were free to fly around as they desired (six tuxedos required dry cleaning). When another performer requested a couple of camels on stage they were duly rented from a local theme park, trucked in and led down the narrow staff hallway to the stage entrance, redesigning the light fittings along their way.

Arhus aThe Bolshoi has performed here and brought its own tried and true solution for a stage surface its dancers regarded as too slippery. They went to the 7-Eleven and bought litres and litres of cola soft drink, then mopped the stage with it and left it to dry. Nice and sticky.

Nigel Kennedy has played here. He booked the orchestra for two days of rehearsals and didn’t turn up for either of them, arriving at the House only minutes prior to the first performance, during which he turned his back to the audience for the entire concert because he likes looking at his ‘band’ while he plays. When you’re as good as he is you can do this kind of stuff and still get a standing ovation. Best not to try it until you’re as good as he is.

Published November 2017


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