Surprising Symphonic Discoveries

With the sound of Jacoby Symphony Hall virtually hyped to life by the glowing accolades on its website and the praises of AXPONA's Steve Davis, I had to hear it for myself. Besides, I'd never heard either An-Lun Huang's Saibei Dance or John Corigliano's Oboe Concerto. I do recall, however, hearing Beethoven Symphony No.7 in A major at least once in my increasingly lengthy lifetime. (I'm being facetious, folks).

My seat was near-center in Orchestra row T. It's a very interesting position. In Davies Symphony Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the sound in row T is so unfocused and colorless that I devoted an entire As We See It in this magazine to the way sound shifts radically in different rows of that hall. (I love the sound in Davies between orchestra rows G and N, with H, J, and K my absolute favorites.) In Fort Worth's Bass Hall, which I visited a number of times when I covered the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Gramophone, the sound is remarkably vibrant and alive as far back as row V—so good, in fact, that the jury is seated in the first balcony just a bit farther back from where I was seated in the orchestra.

Jacoby Hall's acoustics, at least from row T, were different yet again. The sound was certainly alive and resonant, but I heard none of the vaunted midrange that some audio manufacturers and engineers tout as conveying the soul of music. You know the deep resonance in the center of the timpani and bass drum that so many of us crave from our systems? Zilch. How about the warmth of the oboe (which I heard a lot of in the Corigliano), or the clarinet, or even the bassoon? Nada. In row T, sound tended toward the bright, uniform, and monochromatic, with little of the undertones that fill it out and add nuance to orchestral colors and timbre.

What does all this mean for audiophiles? For one, it puts the lie to any claims of an "absolute sound." In many halls, an orchestra's sound changes radically depending upon the seat, and few of us sit either directly in front of instruments (as in close-miking and multi-miking) or hover above the stage (as in the mikes used to pick up hall ambience). Unless we know where mikes are placed during a recording, and know the sound of a particular hall from that particular vantage point, we can, at best, develop a relative sense of sonics from cumulative experiences in multiple halls.

Secondly, the sound of every orchestra is different. Having just reviewed the LA Phil, Boston Symphony, and Chicago Symphony from roughly the same seat in Davies Symphony Hall, I can tell you that there is a divide of several universes between the extremely noisy clatter of the LAPO under Dudamel and the gorgeous, refined sonorities of the CSO under Muti. Hence, there is no way to know for certain how much of what I heard reflects the sound of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra as well as the sound of Jacoby Hall in row T.

All of which is to say, listen, listen, listen. The more live music you hear, and the more venues you visit, the more you will enrich your discernment when it comes to the sound of audio equipment. Which is what I'm about to start hearing at the 2012 Axpona once I do some yoga and wash off the sweat from my AM visit to the Jacksonville Omni's Fitness Room (where DH Labs' Greg Hovsepian and I used side-by-side elliptical trainers).

Interesting side note: All three composers whose music was played at the concert were deeply concerned with matters of freedom. The Saibei Dance, for example, was written during China's horrible Cultural Revolution, and may reflect an attempt to remain optimistic in the midst of so much destruction. Corigliano is a married gay man (in a ceremony officiated by conductor Marin Alsop, no less) who certainly knows about political and social repression. As for Beethoven (aka Mr. Ode to Joy), he wrote the Seventh in the same year the US declared war on Britain and Napoleon invaded Russia. People who claim that writers for audio publications should never make political references must not be listening to what a lot of music is saying. Hey, they're even debating lyrics of pop songs on the floor of the Florida legislature.

hesson11's picture

Great comments, Jason. I'm enjoying your Axpona commentary. But I'd like to add one more variable to your comments on orchestral sound. I've probably heard the JSO 100 times in Jacoby Symphony Hall. Last night we had a guest conductor, Mei Ann Chen, and I have never heard that orchestra sound quite that way in all my experience. It was brighter and thinner sounding than I believe I've ever heard it. Under former music director Roger Nierenberg and current music director Fabio Mechetti, there has always been a warmth and richness to the full orchestral sound that was curiously missing last night (from my seat in the center of the hall, six rows behind yours). Of course, conductors do shape the sound of orchestras. I just thought it took longer than one concert engagement to do it!

By the way, if you get a chance to take the tour of the hall on Saturday, I think you'll find it interesting. (I.e., the giant bass traps under and behind the stage and the sound-absorbing draperies on the sides of the hall, which last night were raised for the first two works, but lowered for the Beethoven). Thanks for your reporting. I look forward to more of it.