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.

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