Last week Auckland Council took a giant step towards achieving the mayor's goal of creating the world's most liveable city, and I'm not talking CBD rail tunnels. What every liveable city needs is a world-class concert hall, and the scaffolding has just gone up in the ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre so the acoustic experts can create just that.
I admit to being a bit of a hi-fi nut, and can't help feeling that what's going on in the ASB Theatre is a bit like me going out and buying fancy new speakers and an esoteric valve amplifier, all in one great shopping trip. With one exception. The overall cost of around $12 million is a tad more than my credit card could cope with. Still, I'm getting the buzz for free.
Any concertgoer with half an ear will have noticed the huge improvement in the sound and appearance of the 21-year-old auditorium since stage one of the transformation was completed nine months ago. Now it's time to finish the job, and I can't wait to hear the end results when the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra sits down on the stage in early March for a test run.
Last summer, the old high-frequency-absorbing carpet and seating were ripped out of the stalls and replaced with reverberant parquet flooring and new wooden-backed seats. Large wooden reflector panels were also installed on the walls of the stalls and on the ceiling.
This time round, the upstairs circle area is to get the same treatment. In addition, the front surfaces and underneath of the upper levels will be lined with the same wood finish. A new air-conditioning system will also be installed. Oh yes, and last, but certainly not least, the Meyer Constellation electronic-assisted reverberation system, created by New Zealand acoustic scientist Dr Mark Poletti and installed last year, will be fine-tuned.
When the Aotea Centre opened in 1990, the acoustics were a major disappointment. Like many other experimental multi-purpose venues around the world, built by cost-conscious local councils in the vain hope that you could have a single venue that would suit drama, live music and theatre, it failed to please anyone. Indeed the ASB Theatre managed the remarkable feat of being pretty hopeless for all three - unless microphones and amplifiers were employed.
To be fair, we weren't the only ones to get it wrong. At the Sydney Opera House they couldn't even get their single-purpose venues right. I was reminded of this last June, a week or so after being stunned by the sound of New Zealand Opera's Rigoletto, in the half-transformed Aotea Centre. Instead of a dull, unresponsive hall, with singers and orchestra struggling to fill the venue, it was like a mono LP being replaced with a brilliant new surround-sound stereo disc.
Soon afterwards I sat in the Sydney Opera House theatre to hear Erich Korngold's Die tote Stadt, to be greeted with a bank of loudspeakers rather than an orchestra. The orchestra pit in that venue has always been criticised as too small, but normally the band is trimmed to fit. But I picked a producer who decided if he couldn't squeeze a 90-piece orchestra into the pit, he'd stick them next door and pipe the sound through the wall, where the singers and audience waited.
It was like the bad old days when singers and dancers performed to scratchy tapes.
A couple of nights later in the neighbouring opera house concert hall, it was like Aotea Centre deja vu. On our seats at a Sydney Symphony concert was a note pointing to huge plywood panels lining the side walls and explaining they were there "to reduce high-frequency distortion" and were part of a series "of acoustic enhancements that are part of a larger plan to bring the concert hall in line with contemporary usage patterns at the world's most respected venues".
The experts asked for our help to "determine the final tilt and positioning". It was hard not to suggest they come and check out the ASB Theatre. By March, I'm full of hope it will be well on the way to fitting the "most respected venue" title perfectly.