Monday, December 1, 2014

Symphony Hall: Music like I've never heard it

I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the first time Saturday night, and my ears are still tingling.

Guest conductor Leonidas Kavakos led a program of Bartok, Haydn and Mussorgsky. He used the broadest tempos for "Pictures at An Exhibition" I've ever experienced, luxuriating especially in the massive brass chords. And though I've listened to that piece live and in recordings dozens of times, I really heard it for the first time.

Yes, having so many musicians onstage made a difference, especially when they're all first-rate. But the special difference was Symphony Hall. The program notes rate it as one of the three best halls acoustically in the world, along with the Musikverein in Vienna and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I haven't been to either, but it could be so: Every note, from low grumblings in the violins to the high whine of the oboe, came across with perfect clarity and projection. Here's a look at the hall in transition from a Boston Symphony to a Boston Pops set-up:

That's the sound you get when you build a hall specifically for an orchestra, which Boston did in 1900. As the program says, "The walls of the stage slope inward to help focus the sound. The side balconies are shallow, so as not to trap any of the sound, and though the rear balconies are deeper, sound is properly reflected from the back walls. The recesses of the coffered ceiling help distribute sound, as do the statue-filled niches along the three sides."

Contrast that with the Belk Theater, which has 500 fewer seats (2097 to 2625), is shorter front to back and has three tiers above the orchestra, not two. The overhang in the Belk is much closer to the stage, and the seats under it get diminished sound even during the best of mixes. The Belk's a fine all-purpose hall, useful for opera and dance and Broadway tours as well as symphony concerts, but it's not designed for one purpose alone.

Lest you think only the Boston Symphony can shine in Symphony Hall, check out this video of the University of Massachusetts Marching Band in the same venue:

Charlotte won't build another concert hall in my time at The Observer, maybe even my lifetime. So I'll have to fly to Amsterdam, Vienna or Boston to get a bead on the perfect sound.

P.S. Unlike the organ pipes in the Belk, which are as handsome and useless as a chiseled eunuch in a harem, the ones at Symphony Hall are actually connected to an organ console.


Garth Vader said...

Heard that organ last year in the Saint-Saens. Amazing.