About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

October 2, 2013

Concert halls and peanuts in a boxcar; the question of scale

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center seats 2738 people. When Bernard Labadie conducted the New York Philharmonic there in March for the Bach Variations Festival, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim remarked in the NY Times:
"...Bach’s suites, with their gleaming trumpets, are at heart festive works of chamber music, and in this hall they came across as mild-mannered and diffident. The subtle sparkle and refined textures of the violin concertos didn’t stand a chance."
She went on to say that another problem was that a true "historically-informed performance" (HIP)* of music from Handel and Bach's era requires more than 'paring down' vibrato and 'a couple of rehearsals with a visiting conductor,' even when you are talking about the New York Philharmonic and a conductor with M. Labadie's prodigious abilities.

On October 14 in Leffler Performance Center, we intend to remedy those  problems!

Drey Schwanen
What we call a 'concert hall' made its first appearance in Bach's home town, Leipzig, but not until 30 years after his and Handel's deaths. In 1780, 'because of complaints about concert conditions and audience behavior in the tavern' (Drey Schwanen, left), the mayor and city council of Leipzig offered to renovate one story of the Gewandhaus (a building used by textile merchants and the city's arsenal) for the orchestra's use. They had room for 500 seats (below).

Alte Gewandhaus, 1781

Zimmermann's Coffee House

So, during their lives, most of Bach and Handel's works were performed in smaller places like taverns, coffee houses (especially Zimmermann's, left) and churches, places where 'acoustics' would have ranged all over the map but were generally less problematic because the spaces were small.

Talking simply about scale, the enclosed volume of most of these concert-hall precursors was certainly far smaller than that of Avery Fisher Hall, built to accommodate the largest number of paying patrons to hear a massive modern "symphonic" orchestra such as dreamed of in the 19th century by megalomaniacal composers like Berlioz and Scriabin. (The mystical Scriabin imagined concerts covering entire countries!)

Talking about both scale and acoustics, Musser Auditorium at Leffler Performing Arts Center at Elizabethtown College would seem to be just about right for the October concert of Les Violons du Roy, conductor Bernard Labadie, and mezzosoprano, Stephanie Blythe. We should hear the entire range of the "gleaming trumpets...and all the subtle sparkle and refined textures" of the program. For comparison, Musser, seating about 800, is close in size to the original Gewandhaus, and to the Leipzig Singakademie where Mendelssohn conducted the revival of Bach's St. Matthew Passion (1829), finally overcoming the formidable century-old challenge of the complexity of the score, multiple choruses, soloists and orchestras. 

Musser Auditorium at Leffler Performance Center
photo: Joel Fan
A Baroque orchestra is about the same size as a chamber orchestra. "Chamber," (or "Kammer") initially distinguished secular from religious music, a 'room' from a 'sanctuary,' and implied small scale and intimacy between players and listeners. Indeed, premieres of what has become the core of chamber music--by Schubert, Beethoven, the Schumanns, Brahms--often took place in rather crowded small spaces which listeners eye-to-eye with the players as many old drawings suggest. In churches, small orchestras were necessary to fit into the choir or chancel.

The October 14 concert will also eliminate the problem of large symphonic orchestral musicians playing in an unfamiliar 'baroquey' style. Les Violons do that every day. Far from the 'authentic' early music performances of yore -- the authenticity often a gimmick or a substitute for competency -- historically-informed performances bring this music to a life that you may have never experienced before. The genius of Bach and Handel, as with Mozart, Beethoven and other 'old masters,' is that their music speaks to us centuries later when brought to life by performers like you will hear on October 14. The result is as contemporary and exciting as Jay Z or Lady Gaga! (but perhaps out of kilter with our current "loud, violent, shouting" cultural moment -- see previous post below). 

Of course none of this matters to Stephanie Blythe. Her pianissimo can reach the back row of the Metropolitan Opera House, and no doubt even the back of Avery Fisher.

*If you have read this far, you might like to read the late Bruce Haynes' The End of Early Music; A period performer's history of music for the twenty-first century.