|Columbus Symphony musicians warming up before a concert|
For a long time I've harbored the notion that the acoustics of a concert hall may be improved by electronic means. Many classical musicians regard themselves as purists, but I consider myself more of a realist. In reality, some concert halls disappoint. If a professional orchestra finds itself performing regularly in a hall that disappoints, well, no matter how well that orchestra plays, it won't sound all that impressive if the acoustics are incapable of supporting and enhancing its sound. A hall which is acoustically dead can lessen the value of the acoustical product. And let's face it, the acoustical product is critical for an orchestra to garner public support. If the public leaves the concert hall disappointed, that's not beneficial to the orchestra. Since the average concert goer is probably not even aware of the issue of acoustical presence, the cause of disappointment is perhaps unaddressed.
Yet many classical musicians bristle at the notion of amplification, as if the inherent acoustics of the hall may be trumped by each individual musician's ability to produce a glorious sound. The truth is that no matter how great an orchestra and its individual musicians are, if the hall deadens the sound too much, the listener will experience too little sense of presence and the aural experience will be disappointing. It would be like listening to your home audio system with the volume turned down way too low. Try an experiment - see how much volume you need before you begin to feel satisfied with your experience of listening to your home audio system. That volume is the threshold of "presence". A good concert hall reaches and at times surpasses that threshold.
This past weekend the Columbus Symphony performed a pops concert which featured the orchestra alone on the first half. After intermission an ABBA tribute band took the stage with the orchestra, with amplification. For this particular concert the orchestral first half was also mildly amplified, and the portable shell was removed from the stage. Some the the Columbus Symphony musicians were upset about the shell removal and amplification, so I ventured out into the hall during the rehearsal of the orchestral first half to listen.
And I was surprised. The orchestra sounded the best I'd ever heard it, and that was because the amplification helped the orchestra fill the cavernous hall, finally crossing over the formerly elusive "presence" threshold.
The audience responded. We received our first ever (as far as I know) standing ovation for the orchestral first half of a pops concert. And the review was totally positive.
The current issue of The New Yorker magazine features an intriguing article about innovations in sound control. Of course, the best option for any orchestra is to have the opportunity to perform regularly in a first-class concert hall with pleasing acoustics. But in the absence of such a hall, perhaps technology may be used to make up the difference between the actual hall and the ideal acoustical setting. Is it possible for us classical musicians to open our minds to the possibility?