Concert Halls: A View From The Stage Page 2

The fourth, and final, requirement is similar to what one should expect of a good full-range loudspeaker. Just as with audio components, concert halls have colorations, resonant frequency suckouts and spikes, and overload points. The ideal hall would have a completely neutral tonal balance, with an even frequency response throughout the complete musical spectrum. Every hall has a specific set of tonal characteristics which the performing artist must complement (similar to matching components within any system), and most musicians prefer theatres with colorations that enhance the musical performance in a euphonic sense, to a greater or lesser degree (analogous to the tube vs solid-state debate?).

I happen to like halls that have a great deal of life and resonance, with clarity, immediacy, and visceral presence. (So that's why I own Martin-Logan Monoliths!) It always makes me chuckle when I meet those off-the-deep-end audiophiles who use one or two "well-chosen" recordings to tune their systems, and can't quite figure out why the same conglomeration of equipment sounds intolerable on any other program source. They have not yet discovered that the halls in which their reference sources were produced have colorations, and to use the tonal characteristics of one theatre as the absolute (as do some members of the high-fidelity audio press) is not only unrealistic, but foolish.

One of the questions I frequently encounter, especially from people interested in audio, concerns the sonics presented to the musician on stage vs those apparent to the listener in the audience. The immediacy and visceral presence experienced when sitting in the middle of a full symphony orchestra is exciting and impressive, but I don't think it gives a very realistic point of view. (Every audiophile should have the opportunity to experience this first hand . . . no subwoofer in the world can come close.) As suggested by my previous discussion of desired hall characteristics, musicians have specific requirements that don't necessarily jibe with listeners' priorities. Audiophiles, on the other hand, are often looking for sonic characteristics not necessarily important to performing musicians. Many of these characteristics are not as obvious during live performance in the concert hall (due primarily to the gross sonic exaggerations and manipulations on the part of the recording industry), but are nevertheless important factors that contribute to any concert hall's musical appeal. Keeping this in mind, I would like to examine a few halls (from both sides of the stage) that I feel represent significant positive or negative contributions to the musical world.

Carnegie Hall, New York: Then and Now . . .
I recently returned from a short tour with the National Symphony which included two concerts in the newly renovated Carnegie Hall. Although there will undoubtedly be several editorial comments on the new revisions, this will probably be the first from someone who has actually performed there. As soon as I sat down to warm up before our first acoustical rehearsal, it was difficult for me to believe that this was the same hall that I remembered . . . not only visually, but sonically. Now that the famous hole in the top of the ceiling over the stage has been covered up---created for the filming of the 1946 movie Carnegie Hall---and all of the curtains and other sound-absorbing materials removed, the previously overly warm, euphonic quality has been replaced by a much more neutral, clear, and dynamic sound. The most significant improvement, however, is in the bass: at first hearing the low frequencies appear to be thinner and leaner, but are actually more natural, with less mid-bass fatness and more top-to-bottom spectral coherency.

Playing on the new stage was, for me, an enlightening and revealing experience. Whereas many of my colleagues did not care for the new acoustical environment, claiming the sound to be too hard and honky, I found it to be extremely honest and revealing. The textural nuances coming from all of the orchestral choirs were more evident than ever before, with a sense of transparency that allowed me to hear every musical line in proper perspective. I felt very comfortable when playing, being able to hear exactly what my instrument produced, and therefore able to color and "bend" my sound to fit each musical phrase. The presence and "ping" on attack in Carnegie is superb, and one is able to sense the resonance projecting into the house, but without any frequency dependency. Furthermore, even in the most aggressive full orchestral passages, the hall never overloaded, giving the performer the feeling of ease and equilibrium.

There is a higher ratio of reflected-to-direct sound in the renovated Carnegie, and this has caused some concern and negative reaction from performers who claim that they cannot hear one another as well as before. While this may be true for some, I maintain that the feedback the artist receives from the house is more honest and accurate, and therefore more artistically valid. In my opinion, the new Carnegie is the most neutral-sounding concert hall presently standing.

Symphony Hall, Boston:
Symphony Hall is, like Carnegie, a neutral transducer, but with more colorations and greater sensitivity to sonic overload. The stage is a bit small for a full symphony orchestra---something made very clear to me when I got jabbed with a trombone slide in my back---but when you have the opportunity to play in a place like this, such problems appear trivial. The sound in Symphony Hall is more immediate to the audience than in Carnegie, and the stage feels "tighter" and less airy in tonal quality to the performer, resulting in an acoustic favoring a lighter style of playing. The spectral balance in the house is tilted slightly upward, so the musician must be careful not to play with too much "zing" and edge to the sound, and the stage resonance is projected into the house with incredible immediacy and presence, without any frequency dependency. There is a higher ratio of direct-to-reflected sound on this stage than at Carnegie, and the performers can hear one another's instrumental attacks more intimately.