Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Electronic enhancement of concert hall acoustics

Columbus Symphony musicians warming up before a concert

For quite some time I've harbored the notion that concert hall acoustics may be improved by electronic means. While many classical musicians regard themselves as purists who frown upon electronic enhancement, I consider myself more of a realist. Let's face it - some concert halls disappoint. If a professional orchestra performs in a dull hall, then no matter how well that orchestra plays, it won't sound all that impressive. An orchestra needs an acoustical environment capable of supporting and enhancing its sound. The absence of such a venue surely affects public support for the orchestra. If the public leaves the concert hall feeling inexplicably unsatisfied, how likely is it that the audience will return for another performance or write donation checks? Since musicians and concertgoers alike seem unaware of the issue of acoustics, the source of aural disappointment is perhaps unaddressed or, worse, attributed to the orchestra itself.

Yet many classical musicians bristle at the notion of amplification, as if the inherent acoustics of the hall, no matter how inadequate, may be somehow trumped by each individual musician's ability to produce a glorious sound! The truth is that no matter how great an orchestra and its specific musicians are, if the hall deadens the sound too much, the listener will experience too little sense of presence, much like listening to a home audio system with the volume turned down way too low. Try an experiment with your home stereo system – starting with your volume turned down very low, gradually increase the volume until you begin to feel satisfied with your listening experience. That particular volume level marks the “threshold of presence".  An acoustically appealing concert hall reaches and at times surpasses that threshold.

This past weekend the Columbus Symphony performed a pops concert in the Ohio Theatre which featured the orchestra alone during the first half of the concert. After intermission
ABBA the Concert (a tribute band from Sweden) 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. During the rehearsal, several Columbus Symphony musicians seemed dismayed by the shell removal and amplification. The reasoning was that the missing shell would have provided much-needed sound reflection, and the amplification was, as usual, summarily dismissed as an affront to our artistic sensibilities.

After listening to the complaints of my fellow musicians, I decided to venture out into the audience seating area of the hall during the rehearsal to see how the orchestra actually sounded from the audience perspective. I was stunned! Never before had I heard the Columbus Symphony sound so luxuriant in the Ohio Theatre. Indeed, the electronic amplification helped the orchestra to fill the cavernous hall with its now-massive sound, finally crossing over the hitherto elusive "presence threshold”. The portable shell which so many of the musicians deemed indispensable had been upstaged by a few microphones!

The audience responded to our performance with spirited applause and cheers. (I predict future ticket sales for these satisfied customers.)  We received our first ever (as far as I know) standing ovation for the orchestral first half of a pops concert, and
the review reflected the enthusiasm of our listeners.

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 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?