Thoughts on Simon Rattle's socially distanced Schubert

When listening to BBC Radio 3's broadcast of Berg's Violin Concerto and Schubert's Ninth Symphony with Simon Rattle, the London Symphony Orchestra and soloist Leonidas Kavakos, I was struck by how engaging the sound was. Engaging is not the same as life-like, and the sound captured in LSO St Luke's - a repurposed 18th century Hawksmoor church - was not what would be heard in a conventional concert hall. But the separate voices - both sections and soloist - within the orchestra could be clearly and separately heard, without compromising the overall integrity of the sound picture**. If I can find a word to describe the sound it was 'commercial'. In this context I am not using commercial as a pejorative; but as a description of a sonic experience likely to engage ears attuned to recorded sound from beyond the classical world - and that is classical's target market.

If classical music wants a wider audience, it must engage new listeners. So it is difficult to understand why discussion of audience engagement goes little further than optimising social media metrics and the gender of the conductor, and why there is virtually no discussion of the crucial mechanism of listening. The LSO concert was recorded on Jan 21 under strict COVID-secure conditions; as can be seen in the accompanying photos this means the orchestra is socially distanced. Did that social distancing contribute to the transparent but cohesive orchestral sound? Was it also helped by the relatively simple microphone placements visible in the photo? Is a more 'commercial', more engaging, sound what is needed to win new audiences over? Is the acoustically-perfect concert hall as defined by 19th century conventions now a millstone around classical music's neck? Was Jonathan Harvey correct when he advocated the judicious use of sound shaping to ease the transition of new audiences from non-classical to classical?

Listening is a complex and little-understood process. Before the Radio 3 broadcast started I knew the orchestra were socially distanced. Did the observer effect come into play? How much was my positive judgement on the engaging sound influenced by knowing that the orchestra layout was different? In quantum physics the observer effect is the disturbance of an observed system by the act of observation; which means observation affects reality. A simple example of the observer effect is that it is impossible to hear the sound of an empty concert hall. To hear that sound the listener has to be present, and the absorbent nature of the human body affects the sound. These are not just mind-games. The observer effect has a profound impact on engagement with classical music. My verdict on that LSO concert was delivered listening under optimal conditions via a high-end audio system in my listening room. Would it have been less engaging listening via an iPhone and ear-buds in a shopping mall? Which, of course, is how most music is consumed these days.

My thoughts on socially distanced Schubert provide more questions than answers. Which may seen counterintuitive. But for years classical music has parroted the same answers to the challenge of winning a wider audience. The problem is those answers are a response to the wrong questions. Classical music needs new listeners, and listening has nothing to do with the gender or ethnicity of the musicians, number of Twitter followers, click bait communication or any of the other fashionable silver bullets peddled by the classical experts. Others agree with my thesis. A Spectator review last September by Richard Bratby was headlined 'Why orchestras are sounding better under social-distancing**'. It went on to propose that the social distancing of orchestras in the 2020 COVID Proms was the reason why "so many listeners seem to be finding these performances so affecting". 

For years classical music has stuck to the dogma that in the desperate search for new audiences anything can be changed, except the Holy Cow of how audiences listen. Jonathan Harvey's proposition that we should take a more flexible attitude towards concert hall conventions dating from the 18th century was greeted with predictable hysteria. In the Observer Fiona Maddocks - biographer of Hildegard of Bingen - riposted that "Jonathan Harvey's ideas to enliven classical music are like inviting a football match crowd to join in on the pitch".

So far the old-guard has successfully resisted changing the way audiences listen to classical music. But now tragic force majeure is overcoming that resistance. Listening to classical music is a complex and little-understood process rooted not in a spurious mix of 19th century dogma and Google Analytics, but in quantum physics and neuroscience. Listening and appreciating classical music is sensitive to multiple and arcane physiological variables that are currently little understood. Simon Rattle's socially distanced Schubert showed that enforced experimentation with just some of those variables can produce surprising results. Let's hope that when we move beyond the current COVID-secure performance conditions, orchestras will continue to challenge what Jonathan Harvey described as the 'silly conventions' of the concert hall.

* Who was responsible for the excellent sound engineering/production of the LSO performance? Presumably BBC Radio 3 licensed the recording from the LSO, and it was produced by the same team as engineer the other LSO COVID-secure concert streams. Is this an LSO in-house team, or is it sub-contracted? More information from knowledgeable readers please. It is absurd that Radio 3 and others do not credit the production team for classical concerts, while announcers - the bane of Radio 3 - receive star billing..       
** To hyphenate or not to hyphenate 'social distancing', that is the question.
Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


It really is amazing you seem to be (still) the only person talking about these issues.
Pliable said…
Thanks Lyle, and what is also amazing is that you still seem to be one of the very few people taking any notice of my posts on this subject.
Unknown said…
I imagine that quite a few of us are concerned about these issues. Sometimes I feel like I'm calling out in the wilderness, but people do respond if you present a coherent case.
Part of it is that I'm thinking and working with this stuff all the time now on a very basic level. We're developing a small pops group (since the community orchestra is too big to rehearse), and hoping to perform outside when the weather warms, so developing ways to mic the strings and the group overall is essential. Have a friend with TV production experience helping with the sound, but even so, choosing options is really tough. Doing sound is a dark art. What to do isn't always obvious. Years of playing instruments is no help at all, as it's an entirely different set of skills. And those stories of gazillions of dollars spent on halls with sometimes "meh" results indicate "the experts" don't really have a handle on it either. There being no clear path may be part of the reason the big guys are so hesitant?
Graeme said…
I notice that everyone is wearing a mask. I wonder if that has an effect on the performance. Conductors of the Nikisch or Boult school believed that everything should and could be communicated by the stick but Rattle is a facially very active conductor. Does it make a difference to the players that they cannot see his expressions? It is strange that so little thought goes into orchestral sound too. Was Stokowski the only person who experimented with different layouts? For most conductors, the placement of the second violins is the major concern. For broadcasting however, as in recording, it makes total sense to me that spatial separation is going to produce a clearer sound.
Unknown said…
Great that Rattle, unlike Vienna Phil's New Year gig, takes this seriously...What certain conductors are doing (a mask-less Gergiev recently...) is making it more complicated for less wealthy orchestras and ensembles to entice their public back into the concert should be "all for one and one for all" and not "alright for some...tough luck for the rest"...

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