Friday, January 21, 2011

Forging Reality in the Concert Hall

As new venues become more and more scarce, and as their importance keeps being diminished, more and more concert venues are make-shift and make-do arrangements with halls that already exist. As well, where some instruments become rare or even none existent, electronic representations or recordings of those instruments become more common.
During the centuries since Christianity became a force and the dominant religion in Europe, some traditions became entrenched. Some of these traditions were musical instruments. The first that comes to mind is the Pipe Organ. Since the cathedrals in which these instruments were built have largely been preserved, we still have access to instruments that Bach and Handel played on or instruments like ones they played on.
The other instrument which became a part of the sound of the environment were the peel of church bells for certainly every cathedral had them and even many smaller churches had peels of bells. Tragically during two world wars, these wonderful instruments were one by one dismantled and the metal they were constructed of, melted down and turned into instruments of destruction, instruments of war. Even those who may not share Christianity's belief systems would decry the destruction of these instruments.
Sounds that once inspired composers in the past are now no longer heard. In many cases, instead of replacing them, churches have opted for electronic representations of these instruments. They are in fact, only poor and cheep copies of what was before one of the most magnificent sounds ever heard.
Some of us lucky enough to have heard the real thing know what they must have sounded like. However, those numbers become fewer and fewer. The problem is that those who have never heard the original sounds, have no idea what they sounded like and are more and more willing to accept bad electronic copies of the real thing.
Despite the fact that I was poor as a church mouse, I was lucky enough to obtain a ticket for the first operatic performance in the new Seattle Opera House. Of course the Opera performed was Wagner's “Parsifal”. One of the wonderful sounds Wagner wrote into his score was the sound of those massively large brass bells which sounded in the bass register. The orchestra does not have real bells available to use for this performance so electronic ones had to be used.
My seat was a fairly good seat, about half way back on the right side. I have to say, I really doubt that there is a bad seat in that house! Seattle Opera, now almost legendary for its performances of Wagner's “Ring Cycle” (go to the 2009 Season and choose the video for Das Rheingold and you'll see the svelt Rhein Maidens swimming on stage like Wagner wanted!) and the rest of the Wagner operatic oeuvre gave its usual outstanding performance. The opera's orchestra performed its usual best and I heard and saw a performance of “Parsifal” that was as good as any recorded performance and likely as good as any I'd hear even in Bayreuth (this I've been told by people who have enough money to buy tickets and go to every performance of the Ring they can find around the world!). 
The fly in the ointment was the electronic bells used. I know they had tuned the hall best they could for his opening performance, however and unfortunately, the speaker through which the bells were broadcast, seemed to be aimed straight into my ears. I was forced to cover my right ear while the bells sounded. This was a substantial portion of the last act and it was the only thing for which I could fault the performance.
I did tell the Seattle Opera about the problem but I'd be very careful in future about sitting any where within ear shot of any of those speakers. You see, these speakers did not just have to enhance a sound as is done in many houses, it had to fill in for real bells. It had to sound as if someone back stage was ringing one of these massive brass or iron bells. My ears were the unfortunate subject on which they gave their first live performance.
The other downside to these knock offs of reality is that pianists attempting to play works like Debussy's Images Book II “Cloches à travers les feuilles”, will never have the experience of hearing the scatter effect heard when bells sound through the leaves of trees. They will either forever puzzle over what Debussy was talking about or look it up. There they may be lucky enough to find that birds use that scatter effect to understand another bird call in the forest. They will also never ever hear the sound of the wind blowing the peel of bells off key during a wind storm as I was lucky enough to hear once. That sound I recognized from the a fore mentioned Debussy composition.
The Vancouver Symphony plays in an old Orpheum theatre originally designed as a movie house, It contains a REAL movie theatre pipe organ. Unfortunately despite having some of the best sound of any venue in the city, it has a whole section of the lower floor which is under the balcony. This overhang causes these seats to have substandard sound. They have been carefully outfitted with a system which tunes them so that those seated in the seats under the balcony overhang, can hear as well as any in the rest of the house.
I heard a performance by the orchestra of Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring”. Now as you well know, “The Rite of Spring” is a virtuoso tour de force second to none. Many orchestras attempt to play it and few play it well. I have over the years heard the orchestra play this work at least 4 times. The first time they played the work was in another venue, sonically not quite as good but the audience was not quite as musically aware as subsequent audiences and seemed puzzled by the work. It was really odd to see the audience slowly leave the house not disliking what they heard but simply puzzled by it. That was some 30 years ago.
This time, however, the orchestra played like the professional orchestra it really is under a conductor who knew how to control the orchestra and an audience who was aware and educated about the music. What I heard astounded me. The playing was as brilliant as any I had heard anywhere. The audience, of course, gave them the standing ovation they so well deserved.
I left knowing I had heard the performance of a life time, a performance which I will always remember. That was almost a decade ago. At one point I realised where I was sitting, I was seated in one of those sonically substandard seats under the balcony over hang. I then realized that the wonderful detail I heard was not exactly that of the hall itself for seated in those seats that level of detail is impossible. I realised that I was hearing the slight electronic tuning that had been done on the hall. This was electronic tuning at its best.
Still, I would have preferred to be seated where there was no electronic tuning, where I could hear the orchestra and how its sound was blended by that of the acoustic properties of the hall itself. My conclusion is now that no electronically tuned hall will ever equal that of the sound you get from the real thing, the sound that you get from a Carnegie Hall! A sophisticated ear will always be able to hear through those electronic alterations.
My concerns, however valid, are not excuses not to purchase tickets to hear the Vancouver Symphony! Under Maestro Bramwell Tovey, the orchestra is playing better than it ever before! This is what you get when you have the best musicians and an outstanding talented conductor!
Cheers, TRJH