Friday, October 23, 2009

It's all about the hall ... or not

What's a concert hall worth? Not in $, but in sound. We don't tend to think too much about this question in Boston because the two busiest halls in town are not only excellent, they're legendary. Symphony Hall and Jordan Hall, just down Huntington Ave. at the New England Conservatory, are such terrific venues that they allow audiences to focus on the performance, without thinking about the room it's taking place in. Easy to forget, then, that many (most?) other major cities are involved in seemingly never-ending discussions about the shortcomings of their major concert halls and the effects, ill and otherwise, on the groups who use them.

Anne Midgette of the Washington Post recently wrote a short piece wondering about how much effect a hall can have on its primary resident ensembles. In particular, she was writing about the National Symphony Orchestra and Kennedy Center. But, more broadly, it's something of a chicken and egg question, and one worth considering and returning to, even in a place, like ours, where the quality of the local band's hall is a settled question. The fact is, Symphony Hall is very much a part of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's sound, as are the concert halls in Cleveland, Vienna, and Berlin. Of course conductors and musicians and their attendant skills and artistic visions play just as important a part, but if the hall is great, there's no getting in the way of that vision. If the hall isn't great, well, it's just one more thing to overcome.

And there are examples of overcoming those weaknesses to such a degree that greatness results. I remember a concert I heard in Lousville, KY, when the Philadelphia Orchestra played there on tour. Now, the Louisville Orchestra is a fine ensemble with its own tradition (honorably built around new music), but it's not the Philadelphia Orchestra, so I don't mean to make an unfair comparison. But the fact is, the band from Philly absolutely made the hall sound great, and, to me (having heard Philly at their old home hall, the Academy of Music), it was because they knew how to compensate for a weak hall.

Another classic example is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who, playing in the less than ideal Orchestra Hall, a very vertical space, took advantage of that characteristic and built a sound on the strength of its knife-edged string sections and burly brass. The result is a very City-of-Broad-Shoulders, visceral, bracing punch to the ears with tremendous volume and impact. It's thrilling in its way, even if it's not everyone's cup of tea. And there's no way that orchestra would have developed like that in a hall like Symphony Hall.

So the next time you hear the BSO at Symphony Hall or any of the several groups that call Jordan Hall their home, take a moment to remind yourself that a big part of Boston's stellar musical ecology owes itself to those gorgeous spaces.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Friday, October 2, 2009

Now that you have that smartphone ...

... you've no doubt been scanning all the options for apps to load on it. Go ahead and get all those geo-locators, games, organizers, and social networking apps, just to see what all the fuss is about. Then go get something you'll REALLY use. Like radio. Yes, I'm glad I can use my iPhone to find decent restaurants in places I've never been just by flicking my wrist, and I definitely spend too much time honing my solitaire skills. But it's the radio apps that are mostly responsible for all that data streaming I see on my cell phone bill each month (fortunately unlimited!).

Not to get too poetic here, but think about that classic American experience of driving for hours across the countryside, picking up radio stations in different locales, especially at night when the combination of FCC regulations and atmospheric conditions make it possible to pick up stations from hundreds of miles away. It's tougher and tougher to have that experience these days because of what's gone on in the radio business.

Now, though, you don't even need to work around those fluky sun spot cycles to pick up radio from hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Load up a few radio apps on the smartphone, plug it into the car stereo or a set of speakers at home, and you're suddenly in the hall for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, or Walt Disney Hall in LA.

Among the options, I'll start with the shameless plug, but there's a good reason for it. The All-Classical WGBH app is something we put together a few months ago to get our own stuff out there. Couple of good reasons to use this to get started: it's FREE, and it's simple. Just launch it, and the music starts. Because it's a pretty basic app, it takes virtually no time to get up and running, and, as we've been doing since we started the All-Classical WGBH, it comes through a high bandwidth stream that offers just about the best sound quality you can get on the net. And did I mention that it's free?

Another nice radio app is WunderRadio, which costs a few bucks but has some really nice features. First of all, it pulls in lots of stations from around the world that some of the other all-purpose radio apps don't seem to locate. So the BBC and Deutschlandradio are right there for you, along with a ton of others. WunderRadio also has a built in web browser, so if you're on an iPhone, where only one app can run at a time, you can still surf while listening. Cool.

More on other smartphone radio apps in an upcoming post.