Last year I got a free ticket to see Plácido Domingo at Olympic Park in Sydney. The venue was so large that when the star came on stage he was about as far away as Alpha Centauri. His voice was still great through the massive sound system, but there was about as much atmosphere in the place as at my local 7 Eleven. The experience led me to ponder how the venue for classical music can be almost as important as the music itself.
Our modern-day concert halls are vastly bigger than the spaces for which the music was originally conceived. In 1800 Beethoven hired the Burgtheater in Vienna to premiere his First Symphony. The theatre has been rebuilt over the years, but you can tell from paintings of the time that it had stalls of only 17 rows of 20 seats and four tiers of boxes in a horseshow shape around the sides. The sound of Beethoven’s first symphonic attempt would have filled the space, vibrating even to those in the back row. Fast-forward to modern times, and if you take yourself off to hear the Sydney Symphony play the same piece, you are hearing it in the 2500-seat cavern of the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, where the back wall is 45 rows from the stage and the musicians are little specks in the distance.
How can you feel close to the music when you need binoculars to see the players? I sometimes wish they’d invent biauralars – devices with headphones where you could point the nozzle at the orchestral instrument you want to hear. Focus for a moment on whatever the bassoon is doing in bar 465, or perhaps check in on how many bars rest before the triangle player tingles into action.
Compounding the problem is the fact that classical music is so dynamically rangey – one minute you’re leaning in for the sound of gossamer strings and the next you’re blown backwards by a full brass section coming at you like angry wildebeest on the savanna. On radio this wide variation in volume can be very difficult. If you put on a pop track in a radio studio you can see how it has been compressed to use up all the available aural space, but sitting in the ABC Classic FM studio I have ridden the faders up and down like Kelly Slater on the waves of Waikiki. One minute trying to contain a massive symphonic burst from Richard Strauss, and the next trying to boost a shakuhachi recorded at a distance of 500 metres in a mountain rainforest. Behind an orangutan. Sometimes (such as the final bars of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony) the music is so soft I’m not even sure if it has finished. I would feel bad about fading it out prematurely, but really Gustav, you’ve had 90 minutes to say what you want – give some other composer a chance.
The best musical experience is when you’re right up close to the music, when you can feel the air move around a double bass or a cello. Paradoxically this can make chamber music in a small room more thrilling than sitting listening to an orchestra in a huge concert hall. The proximity to the musicians can be revealing, you can see the sweat on the brow, the trembling of the fingers. Better still you get to hear all the amazing sounds that musicians make without their instruments. Check out Glenn Gould’s recordings – with all the grunting and groaning, it’s like Monica Seles without the tennis racquet.