The Jacoby Comes of Age

The Robert E. Jacoby Symphony Hall opened on April 27, 1997, fundamentally transforming downtown Jacksonville in the process. Until then, the symphony had no dedicated home of its own.

With seating for 1,800 within an acoustically perfect space, the Jacoby incorporates state-of-the-art technology and design characteristics that rival its counterparts in musical capitals throughout the world. It was, and remains, a symphonic home for the long term. And like most twenty-two-year-olds, it is just hitting its stride.

Getting the Jacoby designed, financed and built was a milestone in civic and political leadership. First conceived in 1993 as part of Mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance program, the plan was to renovate only the existing Civic Auditorium (later re-christened as the Moran Theatre) and the Little Theatre (re-christened as the Terry Theatre). 

“The [original Civic Auditorium’s] acoustics were not good for a symphony orchestra,” says Bob Shircliff, one of the community leaders who helped drive the effort to upgrade the venue. “And the musicians could never rehearse where concerts were being played.” To a casual observer, neither the acoustics nor the lack of rehearsal space mattered much. But to Shircliff and other visionaries with an eye on the future, both issues required a bold and proactive solution. 

One of those other visionaries was developer and philanthropist Preston Haskell, a member of the Jacksonville Symphony board, who brainstormed the problem with then-Music Director Roger Nierenberg. They agreed on the need for a hall that “would have acoustical characteristics and configuration that make it ideal for orchestral music.” 

Energized and undaunted, Haskell took the idea back to the symphony’s Building Committee, which backed the idea and committed to raising the needed funds. “I took it to my colleagues,” Haskell says. “We agreed on a campaign target, and Bob Shircliff approached Robert Jacoby for the name gift.” Jacoby’s unflinching decision to support the idea catalyzed the effort.

The hall’s design was entrusted to KBJ Architects’ Jack Diamond, who brought in world-famous acoustician Larry Kierkegaard to oversee sound quality. They chose a “shoebox” configuration, modeled after acclaimed music halls in Vienna and Boston — an acoustically perfect space, considered the gold standard for orchestral sound design then and now. At the time, Kierkegaard told Haskell how he would know if he had succeeded in Jacksonville: “His standard for perfect acoustics was Boston Symphony Hall,” Haskell says. “I agreed it was a marvelous standard to aspire to.”

During construction, the orchestra played on, relocating for a season to the Florida Theatre. But one item still needed to be addressed: Should the new Jacoby have a concert organ? Budgetary and other practical considerations stood in the way of including one in the initial design, and adding such a massive instrument later could be impractical. But “Preston and Jack planned ahead,” Shircliff recalls, “so a temporary wall was placed behind the orchestra, built to allow for expansion when an organ became available.” 

Symphony board member J. F. Bryan, IV stepped forward with a solution: His family would finance restoration and rework of an organ when a suitable one could be located. Bryan credits fellow board member Ross Krueger with finding the instrument whose magnificent pipes we see and hear today. The former Casavant Opus 553, built in 1914, was re-christened the Bryan Concert Organ on February 17, 2005 at a concert featuring Camille Saint-Saëns’ full-throated Organ Symphony.

With twenty-two years of history, today’s Jacoby is part of Jacksonville’s DNA. The Jacksonville Symphony has expanded its season to thirty-nine weeks a year and performed for a record 290,000 people last season; we’ve heard from violinist Joshua Bell, pianist Lang Lang, soprano Renée Fleming, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and other superstars — all of whom give the Jacoby glowing reviews; plus, we’ve been treated to two full-length semi-staged operas. 

And how well did the Jacoby live up to Kierkegaard’s standard of acoustic excellence? Haskell recalls attending opening night in 1997. Seated next to him was Larry Kierkegaard. “After just a few bars, Kierkegaard leaned over and whispered, ‘Better than Boston.’ I’ll never forget it.”

Visit JaxSymphony.org for event details, program notes and additional information. 

By Richard Salkin

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