VAC PA80/80 power amplifier Page 3

The first movement opens with a heroic theme, declaimed fortissimo by eight horns in unison. The full orchestra bursts in upon the theme, accenting it with great blasts of sound that quickly fade to silence. What a test for an amplifier! The 80/80 sings it all full-throttle. The orchestral outbursts are overwhelming, but totally controlled, and as the tones fade, one can clearly hear the immensity of the Avery Fisher auditorium—and the creaking stage floor and audience paper rustle that project as well as (if not better than) the music itself in that cursed, quirky hall. The score, now carried by the low winds, ebbs and flows onward like rising and falling breath, through passages labeled "What the flowers of the meadow tell me," "What the animals of the forest tell me," "What man tells me," "What the angels tell me," and "What love tells me." And that's just the first movement!

Lenny was particularly known as an interpreter—and champion—of Mahler, and for these concerts, he pulled out all the stops. I attended several of the performances during the November 1987 series that produced this disc and as I watched him conduct this work, it seemed less that he commanded the orchestra than that he implored it, inhabited it. His body would go rigid as he rose on to the tips of his toes, and I was reminded of that point in the religion of voudoun—being "ridden by the loa" in the language of the initiates—where the worshippers venture so far into the sacred that they are no longer resident in their own bodies.

I think that's what happened to Lenny on those cold November evenings--I know it's what happened to me and continues to happen as I listen to the performance on this disc. But not always. Lenny, Mahler, or perhaps only that not-so-random-stream-of-electrons, cannot be communicated through just any hi-fi gear. This is one of the best-sounding recordings I've heard of the contemporary NYPO, yet I've heard the CD sound sterile and removed. But never through the VAC: the PA80/80 conveyed the muscle, the sweat, and that ineffable sense of the sublime almost as powerfully as I experienced them on the nights I was there.

It wasn't merely on the blockbusters that the '80 distinguished itself, either. Ensemble Galilei's Following The Moon (Dorian DIS-80139) is a quiet disc, full of passionate music. It features a lot of delicate, tinkly percussion effects, which the VAC floated as ethereally as any amplifier I've ever heard. Yet the bodhran's thunder did not suffer a whit. And once again, the feature that kept me nailed to my listening chair was the amp's ability to convey the emotional nuances of the pieces—from the gentle longing of an old Celtic air to the immediacy of one of the Ensemble's own compositions.

But it was Stereophile's Festival: Works by Copland, Kohjiba, and Milhaud (STPH007-2) that really allowed the 80/80 to strut its stuff. I suppose I should be all modest about this project and simply state that the disc is "adequate"—but I think that's a load of hooey. I love this disc. It's the most direct statement about what Stereophile is all about that we're capable of making: "This is what live music sounds like to us. This is what we value." I think it captures much of the excitement of live music-making—we were certainly fortunate in having an exemplary ensemble to record, and man, did they ever perform!

The PA80/80 puts me back in Santa Fe's St. Francis Auditorium on those July 1995 nights. The hall's unique sound is re-created in all of its ambient glory—this amplifier's a real corker when it comes to the recreation of a specific space. I hear the musicians in their familiar positions, the ones drummed into me in rehearsal after rehearsal. But most of all, the amplifier delivers that electric, every-hair-standing-erect thrill that almost never comes across in recordings. The anticipatory hush that introduces Appalachian Spring is palpable, and that bizarre mariachi brass chuckling amidst the frenchified africanisms of La Création du Monde punches through the ensemble like a needle through silk. I'm there, brother, I'm there.

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