Beethoven's grand slam
An ace performance by the Britten Sinfonia and James MacMillan at their Norwich concert last night provided much food for thought. Centrepiece of the programme was James MacMillan's new oboe concerto which confirmed that having something to say is more important than conforming to a fashionable musical 'ism'. A forward looking yet sombre central slow movement was followed by an extrovert finale that could only have come from the composer of Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. The new work was passionately advocated by Britten Sinfonia co-founder Nicholas Daniel who has done so much to extend the oboe repertoire. It was illuminating hearing members of the audience talking about the concerto after the performance. Most of them were there for the Beethoven rather than the MacMillan. But the consensus was that new music can be true to itself without making the audience run a mile.
However, it was the second half performance of Beethoven's Second Symphony, superbly conducted by James MacMillan incidentally, which really set me thinking. Regular readers will know I am a big fan of the Britten Sinfonia. But that is not going to stop me enthusing about the quality of the sound they produced last night. The Britten Sinfonia is an ensemble of outstanding musicians who combine exemplary technique with an absolute respect for the score, and this was small band Beethoven, six first violins and four cellos. But the sound, oh the sound... there was a precision, an attack, but above all a visceral quality and slam which is so rarely heard these days in live classical music. The Britten Sinfonia played precisely what Beethoven wrote, but the tightness of the sound was reminiscent of a very good rock band. Which takes us to the subject of younger audiences.
Sound quality may just be the Holy Grail that will lead young people back to classical music. Sound quality matters: Jeff Harrington's provocative proposition here that classical music needs more bass generated a massive readership and was linked by influential sources such as NPR in the States. It may just be semantics, but last night left me wondering whether classical music needs more slam rather than more bass. Which takes us to amplification and acoustics.
The Britten Sinfonia's concert was in the Theatre Royal, Norwich and I have previously mentioned the 'Carmen' electro-acoustic sound enhancement system developed by the French research centre CSTB that was installed in the multi-use auditorium in 2007. Only three venues in the UK currently have this system which uses digital technology to create reverberation in naturally dry halls. At this point one thing should be made very clear. The Britten Sinfonia do not need sound enhancement to make glorious music. But that does not stop us learning lessons from last night's concert.
From my seat last night in the second row of the circle the sound was glorious. But to my well trained ears it was also a slightly larger than life. But wait a moment, what does the word 'life' mean in that statement? What exactly is the 'natural' sound' we should be using as our reference point?
What we hear in any concert hall is a mix of direct sound from the performers and a large amount of reflected sound bouncing off the structure, furnishings, audience and everything else in the hall. Each hall's unique sonic 'signature' is created by the reflected sound which is an integral part of the performance experience. But those reflections change the quality of the sound as well as delaying it. Some materials, particularly human bodies and furnishings, absorb certain frequencies while other harder surfaces simply reflect them. Which means every single hall changes the sound of the performers to a noticeable extent and way beyond simply adding reverberation - for concert hall think graphic equaliser with the sliders randomly adjusted.
There are only two places that the 'natural' sound of performers can be heard: in an anechoic chamber and in the open air. These are totally 'dry' venues because there is no reflected sound. And everyone knows that acoustically dry venues are unpopular with audiences. Which is why enhancement systems are being installed in venues such as the Theatre Royal, Norwich.
The science (or art?) of concert hall acoustics has gone through three phases. Until the mid-20th century chance, in the form of available construction materials, determined a hall's sonic signature. From the mid-20th century until very recently architectural design and choice of construction materials were used to acoustically tune concert halls, with mixed results. We are now entering the third phase, where tuning the sound using bricks and mortar is being replaced by digital tuning, as in the Theatre Royal, Norwich.
The importance of this third phase cannot be underestimated. Acknowledged masters of the second phase of concert hall acoustics were Arup Associates, whose work included creating the legendary Snape Maltings acoustic. Arup Associates are also responsible for the just completed acoustic reworking of the Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury. And how did Arup transform that venue's acoustic? With bricks and mortar? No, with a custom CSTB electro-acoustic enhancement system.
Elsewhere I have written about how digital reverberation is an integral part of ECM's acclaimed 'natural' sound. We accept it on disc, and, whether we like it or not, it will become standard in the concert hall. It is also important to note that Britten Sinfonia audience research at the Theatre Royal, Norwich gives a unanimous thumbs-up to the 'blasphemous' new sound enhancement system, even from older concert goers.
Jonathan Harvey's proposal for amplified classical music needs closer examination. He did not mean stacks of Grateful Dead-style bass bins. He meant leveraging digital technology to provide the slam that young audiences want. At this point let's head off some of the comments. Yes, great recordings playing through great audio systems provide slam without digital processing, as do great performers in great halls. But how many can listen under such conditions? Classical music can learn a lot from the brave use of new technology at last night's Britten Sinfonia concert. Digital sound enhancement tools applied to concert halls could be the key to bridging classical music's audience gap.
* Judge the Britten Sinfonia yourself this evening without any digital enhancement. BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting the Shostakovich/Barshai, MacMillan and Beethoven programme, recorded in Birmingham Town Hall, tonight (Oct 21) at 7.00pm UK time.
Also on Facebook and Twitter. I received two complimentary tickets for last night's concert and also led the pre-concert talk which should be available soon as a podcast. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk