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A true gem, Tonhalle Zürich returns with sharper acoustics

After an extensive, four-year restoration project, the Tonhalle Zurich is back in action, offering a world-class venue for classical music lovers.

The inaugural performances on September 15 and 16 launched the 2021-22 concert season. I noticed a markedly improved musical experience in the Grosse Halle and adjoining spaces.

Zurich has a new lake-side gem that shines not only for its renowned, high-level talent. The new Tonhalle Zurich also offers crisp acoustics and a lush, intimate interior to match the artistry of its musical performers. In all, the project (which included updates for the adjacent Kongresshaus) cost 175 million francs, making it one of Switzerland’s biggest renovation efforts.

Tonhalle Zurich - Copyright Akvile Sileikaite
Copyright Akvilė Šileikaitė

From old to new

If you have experienced the Tonhalle pre-2015, you may have been as underwhelmed as I was by the drab, unmemorable interior and, frankly, the equally drab attitude of its patrons.

I remember a dark, somewhat claustrophobic room, where audience members - even those in the expensive front seats - felt no need to dress up beyond the standard workday slacks and sweaters, some in jeans and sports shoes.

Despite the range of cultural programs it has always offered, the old Tonhalle did not feel like a special musical experience, perhaps because the surroundings and participants did not signal that there was anything inspiring about it.

The classy inauguration of Tonhalle Zürich

Happily, there was nothing boring about the September 15, 2021, unveiling of the renovated Tonhalle. Zürchers were dressed in their evening finery, ready to take in a historical musical event, buzzing with excitement as we entered the brightly lit foyer.

Copyright Gaëtan Bally

Small groups of guests enjoyed a pre-concert drink either on the outdoor patio or in the spacious bar area, flooded with natural light from the windows facing the lake. Geometric sound-proofing panels on the high ceilings kept the din to a muted hum so that conversations could be enjoyed without shouting.

The ambiance was warm and welcoming - with none of the stuffiness that can accompany a premiere at La Scala or the opening of the Salzburger Festspiele where you may feel you have a seat for a high-society fashion show rather than a ticket for a musical experience. At the Tonhalle opening, I felt I was part of an intimate gathering, a reunion of friends greeting friends, admiring the beauty of a familiar old haunt that had received a rather impressive facelift.

An interior design governed by colors

Entering the Grosse Halle is a completely different experience now. The dullness has been lifted, revealing architectural details and ceiling paintings in their original 1895 glory. As Zurich mayor Corine Mauch pointed out while greeting the crowd, the colors are stunning. 

They tend to draw you into the room with salmon-colored columns, warm mauve, beige, and fern interiors and brushed gold trim that adorns the soft curves of the vaulted ceiling and lofts.

The centerpiece of the stage is the newly minted Kuhn pipe organ, its gleaming silver cylinders rising above hazelnut-colored wooden panels and framed by ornate gold latticework. In fact, the pipe organ is such a central figure of the new space that it had its own dedicated inaugural concert series.

The inaugural concert was a rewarding treat for the senses

For the inaugural concert on Sept 15, 2021, Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony in D minor was an excellent choice with a historical connection. The piece originally made its Zurich debut in 1904 as the first Mahler composition to be played in the (then almost ten-year-old) Tonhalle.

This powerful piece was the perfect vehicle to showcase the talents of the current Conductor Paavo Jarvi, the Tonhalle Symphony Orchestra, and vocalists from the Zurich Singing Academy and the Zurich Boys Choir.

Copyright Gaëtan Bally

From the slow and steady first movement, through the lighter scherzando, to the darker misterioso, onto the playful fifth movement and the intense calm of the finale, Jarvi led us on a musical journey of highs and lows during which every swell, every bow stroke, every horn, woodwind, soaring voice and low rumble of the drums could be heard with absolute precision in the acoustic clarity of the room.

The performance was a rewarding treat for the senses, offering rich musicality, aural and visual stimulation, and architectural harmony in which to appreciate it all.

My verdict about Tonhalle Zürich

Zurich’s restored Tonhalle puts our fair city on the map with other grand European cities of music and culture. Whether you are a sophisticated classical music maven or a casual music appreciator, the refurbished Tonhalle is a true gem that will impress you with its understated elegance and the intimacy of its listening room.

Why not check out the season’s offerings and let the Zurich Tonhalle bring live music back into your life this year?


Elizabeth works in non-profit and has a passion for music. As a fiddler with the Roustabouts, she's helped to get the American old-time scene in Switzerland started. When she's not traveling, you're likely to find her hiking in the mountains or relaxing in one of Switzerland's many spas.

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