in: Reviews

September 28, 2012

Glaring Porgy and Bess at BSO

by

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of the The Gershwins’® Porgy and BessSM last night at Symphony Hall, promoted as a highlight of the BSO’s 2012-13 season, was anything but. With a stiff Bramwell Tovey conducting an amplified cast including (inadvertently) the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, it was quite a long evening, with an 11 o’clock finish. Disappointingly, BSO’s presentation was opposite of what I was expecting to hear — the story and its music being some of the most moving I have known since I was a kid, one of my favorites in the whole world. Yes, I was truly looking forward to the concert. But, simply put, neither the performance nor the concept really worked.

The opera in three acts by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin takes place in Catfish Row, a black neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina. From early on in this restored 1935 Broadway production version, I felt something terribly missing when Porgy came on stage wearing a tuxedo and showing no signs of a limp. With males in tuxedos and females in formal gowns, yet with some attempts at staging, exits, and entrances, fewer and fewer connections to the story I know and love were made. The sparse choreography for this concert performance could not pull off the emotion Gershwin had in mind. He said about the Heywards’ work: “I felt when I read Porgy in novel form that it had 100 percent dramatic intensity in addition to humor.”

This performance certainly was a very, very strange experience. I closed my eyes to see if that would help. When I opened them, I looked to my right, but the singer was on my left; his voice coming out the speaker to my right is what I heard! When I opened my eyes again I could see why — the sound was issuing from two large loudspeaker arrays on either side of the proscenium arch, and there was no center array. I heard only the speaker to my right.

Symphony Hall’s amplification wreaked havoc with storytelling and music-making. Whenever a certain decibel or critical mass was reached, a harsh wall of sound resulted. The Hall’s sound system may have worked pretty well with the Soweto Gospel Choir I heard last February, but it clearly did not work for Porgy and Bess. The Press Office of the BSO stated, in a follow-up call, “All singers and actors in Porgy and Bess were amplified to various extents. The idea was just enough to be heard over the orchestra and chorus and add a little clarity during the performance.” All I can say is, there must have been bleed-through to affect the projection of the choir.

There were other pronounced mismatches. Gershwin’s overture in this performance by the BSO had some luster but missed both its inner soul and outer being. The stately brass fanfares soon overpowered the urban bustle of the strings. When Conductor Tovey left the podium and sat down at the deliberately out-of-tune upright, he looked and sounded tight, handling Gershwin’s vigorous American rhythms of that syncopated honky-tonk solo.

And I am one of those heathens — I need, absolutely need and absolutely want to hear, the words of songs. Pop singers, blues singers, folk singers, and jazz singers do pretty well at it. Why do pure vowels and athletic vocal cords so often take over in operatic singing, this, at the cost of good diction? Far too many of the words of Ira and the Heywards were indecipherable. This should never happen, especially in America!

Bass-baritone Alfred Walker and soprano Laquita Mitchell sang the title roles, his Porgy often engaged, her Bess split into personalities. Soprano Angel Blue pitched Clara’s “Summertime” lullaby in a siren-ish way that missed that sunny innocence of mother singing to child. Tenor Jermain Smith also changed his mind a few times in his role as Sportin’ Life, but he did succeed at times in brightening the vocal spectrum. Soprano Marquita Lister sang Serena’s “My Mans Gone Now” too tragically, her lower range appealed while the higher notes gave way to too much power and vibrato.

Baritone Greg Baker’s Crown puzzled, as did his diction. Also in the cast were soprano Alison Buchanan as Lily and Strawberry woman; tenor Chauncey Packer as Peter, mezzo-soprano Krysty Swan as Annie, contralto Gwendolyn Brown as Maria, tenor Calvin Lee as Mingo, Nelson, and Crabman; baritone Patrick Blackwell as Jim and Undertaker, baritone John Fulton as Robbins, baritone Robert Honeysucker as Frazier, and baritone Leon Williams as Jake.

The huge Tanglewood Festival Chorus, headed by John Oliver, displayed fabulous sound and diction in the softer passages of “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down.” These refreshing transparencies were unfortunately brief. Once the chorus hit that critical mass of sound those blankety-blank amplifiers morphed the singing into a harsh tangle.

The applause factor was certainly odd; most of the audience just did not know what to do. It seemed from watching Tovey that he wanted to keep on going — perhaps because he was warned that the audience would want to leave before the clock struck twelve.

The complete ensemble. Note widely spaced speaker arrays. (Stu Rosner photo)

David Patterson, professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

33 Comments

  1. As editor of this publication, I could not wait to edit David Patterson’s review so it could be put up, because I have my two cents to add. He is so right about the sound. It muddied everything and generally was too loud. What should have been the wonderful high notes of Laquita Mitchell’s Bess sounded strident, for one example. The only lyrics I “heard” were basically those I know. Amplification, I think, was the cause of these problems. What a difference from the same performance, which I was so lucky to hear, at Tanglewood. Yes, that too was amplified, but the situation of the Shed with open sides is far different than the enclosed, acoustically fine Symphony Hall. And what a contrast to recent performances there, where even pppps can be transmitted to the farthest listener.

    I also cringed at the silly gestures of the chorus: “Hi!” “Bye!” In fact, as wonderful as the singers of the TFC are, would not it have been so apt, and rewarding, to have used the Boston Children’s Chorus? To be blunt, all but three (?) of the singers in TFC are white… and the BCC not only is a good healthy mix of children of all ethnic backgrounds, they can sing well enough to have been considered, considering what the deliberate makeup of the casting is, and should, be.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — September 28, 2012 at 6:45 pm

  2. It’s terribly shocking, angering, disappointing, and scary, to learn that the singers in “Porgy and Bess” were amplified. The BSO have given up their integrity. The reason for going to Symphony Hall is to hear the natural sound of the instruments and voices, not as modified by an electronic system. Now we can no longer have any confidence that this will be the case in any specific concert, particularly in light of the fact that we were not informed in advance that this would be an artificially enhanced performance, a failure which meant that we were lured into the hall on false pretenses (the repeated assurances in the past that amplification is never used for the music) by a dishonest management. We are all entitled to a refund of our ticket price.

    If there was concern that the soloists could not be heard over the orchestra, there were at least two preferable alternatives: hire singers with more powerful voices, or have the orchestra play softer. The instant Mr. Tovey, or whoever was behind the decision, said amplification would be necessary, the performance should have been cancelled. But as it was, Mr. Patterson is right: the performance was too loud — the phrase ear-shattering comes to mind — and the words were often lost.

    Will the voices of the soloists in the remaining concerts this season be electronically modified also? Can we trust management if they say it won’t happen?

    The Trustees ought to get rid of whoever is responsible for allowing this travesty of live performance to occur. Will they have the integrity that management lacks?

    Kudos to Mr. Patterson for blowing the whistle on the corruption of the BSO.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 28, 2012 at 10:26 pm

  3. I took my seat in the balcony, looked down onto the floor, saw a man sitting at a huge soundboard and thought, “Here comes trouble.”

    Comment by perry41 — September 29, 2012 at 12:04 am

  4. I was there on Friday night and wonder if some rapid adjustments might have been made in the amplification after the initial responses. I was in the second balcony center (my favorite listening place after having tried everywhere else) and the solo voices were, if anything, often not enough when the orchestration got thick. The TF Choir was terrific as usual.

    PS Can someone PLEASE get through to Jermaine Smith (Sporting Life) how totally overplayed to the detriment of the song his “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is. I’ve seen or heard it several times, and I know that he’s made a big splash with it (confirmed by the Symphony Hall audience last night) but it seems to me that his take on it is 100% about him and 0% about the song. None of the great jokes in the lyric come across. He should be sentenced to repeated listenings to the old RCA recording featuring Leontyne Price (another whole topic), William Warfield, and John W. Bubbles, the old vaudevillian who had been Gershwin’s original Sporting Life. (“She fished him, she SAYS, from that stream”…)

    Comment by Harold Stover — September 29, 2012 at 8:08 pm

  5. In my not-humble opinion, based on 57 years of acquaintance with the place, amplification in Symphony Hall can be justified only as a prosthesis — specifically, for performers who haven’t been trained to project.

    Consider — those who took part in the 1935 New York premiere were almost certainly so trained. It was the norm.

    Cut to the present, where outside the realm of classical music, concert performances of all sorts have become 100 per cent microphone-dependent. Nobody gives it a second thought. It’s the current norm.

    Another consideration. It seems to be the case that the better a hall’s left-alone, “natural” acoustic, the stiffer the challenge it is to alter it — or semi-suppress it — for amplification. I’ve actually attended Pops concerts whose “wired” elements did not in fact constitute an invariable affront to civilized values. So it can be done.

    As described above, the BSO’s “Porgy” sounds like the sort of one-off bungle that lessons could be learned from, chiefly: Don’t Ever Do This Again. But If You Must, Be VERY Careful.

    And would people please try to remain calm? It seems a bit early for heads to start rolling.

    Comment by Richard Buell — September 29, 2012 at 9:34 pm

  6. Makeup. No pun intended?

    Comment by Jerome — September 29, 2012 at 9:45 pm

  7. *** We are all entitled to a refund of our ticket price.

    I was not at the concert and only read the BMI review above. Amplified sound in Symphony Hole? Well, this bite-and-switch fraud, pure and simple. I do not know whose initiative it was but it was unquestionably a fireable offence. I hope the fury of God will reach the person who was responsible for that atrocity and we never hear about his/her existence again.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — September 29, 2012 at 10:03 pm

  8. No, no no, Mr. Buell. The “lesson” must be “Don’t Ever Do This Again. But If You Must, Play Something Else.”

    And I definitely want heads to roll. There is no valid excuse for this, and anybody who thinks there is does not belong in, cannot be trusted in, the organization of the BSO. If they get away with it this time, they’ll do it again (just this concert), … and again (it will really make for better balance), … and again (what’s the big deal? we did it for A, B, and C); and eventually it will be standard operating procedure whenever there are soloists.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 29, 2012 at 10:09 pm

  9. At the very least, they must be told, in no uncertain terms, “This is a firing offense. If it EVER happens again, you are gone forever the next day.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 29, 2012 at 10:11 pm

  10. On second thought, the lenient approach (Do it again and you’re gone) does nothing to restore our shattered confidence in the artistic integrity of the BSO, unless the public is made privy to the documentation.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — September 29, 2012 at 10:22 pm

  11. Just home from the Saturday evening performance. A horror show. I can’t say I’m a fan of the work, far from it, but I hoped to enjoy it as an artifact of its time and that wasn’t possible.

    When does the season start?

    And what are those curtains hanging on the walls of Symphony Hall? Did I miss an explanation? What’s being covered up?

    Comment by Will — September 29, 2012 at 11:38 pm

  12. Symphony Hall is – well – a hall for to hear symphonic music. It is not an opera house and it is not a small Broadway Theater with a pit buried beneath the stage. For all its hallowed acoustics, I’ve sometimes found opera difficult to listen to in the hall because the singers are often very difficult to hear. I can still remember hearing only about ‘half’ of the final scene form Salome with the great Karita Mattila. Of course the conductor (Levine) is not known for his willingness to bring the orchestra under singers, so he was partly to blame. I’m not suggestion that amplification is the solution, but let’s not pretend that there are not acoustical challenges in presenting pieces of music that were not designed for the concert hall, but rather opera houses and theaters with orchestra pits.

    Like Mr. Patterson, Porgy is a piece I’ve known and loved for decades – since back in the 70’s when the HGO brought us a much more complete version of the ‘opera’. I was at Friday’s performance and was fortunate to be sitting all the way back in the first balcony and was frankly unaware that the performance was amplified. Like Mr. Stover, I’m inclined to wonder if the whole thing was modified considerably after what sounds like a virtual fiasco on opening night. Or perhaps it was just where I was sitting. It’s a pity that the drama surrounding the amplification seems to have eclipsed what seemed in many ways to be a terrific performance. I’ve seen many productions over the years, and this was definitely one of the stronger casts I’ve heard. The TFC sounded terrific and seemed to be having a great time – so we did, too. There were some real standout moments in the orchestral playing and dynamite clarinet playing from start to finish (not to mention a very beautiful English Horn solo).

    The 1935 version – what we heard this week – cuts nearly 40 minutes off Gershwin’s pre-opening original. It is easy to understand why these cuts were necessary in the Broadway context, however they do no service to the piece, trimming critical incidental music and creating clumsy and jarring transitions – or simply no transitions at all. I find it very difficult to believe that Gershwin would have preferred this truncated version. Better to do the piece complete and honor the divisions of the acts where he put them. Yes, it would make for a very long evening, but – for the BSO to present Porgy is in itself an event, so why not do it right? Start the show at 7:00 and let’s hear all the music.

    As for the amplification, it’s a shame that – at least on opening night – it spoiled the performance for some of you. I haven’t gone to Broadway Shows for years in part because I detest the amplification. Ironically when you take the pit band out of the pit and put it on stage with the singers – especially a very brass heavy piece like this – you’ve got problems. Not saying amplification is the right solution, but I don’t condemn the BSO for trying it.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — September 30, 2012 at 12:10 am

  13. The amplification of of the singers was shocking enough on Friday Night but the decibel level was so loud and distorted that it hurt the ears. Certainly the soloists had body mikes too… at one point when one of them went backstage the volume level was unchanged! There were also several little cheesy boom box type speakers at the front of the stage.

    There were more than a few times that the orchestra was drowned out by the singers!

    What was the purpose of the long drapes covering the windows above the first 3 doors on both sides + the center of the second balcony?

    Yes, the TF chorus sounded slightly amplified too.

    I think Maestro Tovey’s conducting was exciting and the soloist’s were gifted but, because of the hideous amplification, I couldn’t wait for the performance to end.

    Comment by Ed Burke — September 30, 2012 at 12:49 am

  14. I was at the Saturday performance. I sat in row z (third row back at the crosswalk). The amplification must have been pulled back, because I mostly didn’t notice it. The singers were never in danger of overpowering the orchestra! I noticed the amplification mainly in the dialogue, where it was likely needed. Yes, the diction was often unclear. The reviewer has Angle Blue and Marquita Lister confused: Blue was Clara and Lister was Serena. Blue was marvelous. Tuxes and evening gowns are odd for Porgy and Bess, but I’m not sure costumes would work in a concert performance in front of the orchestra. The chorus gestures got a bit silly, reminded me of the NY Phil Candide. However, I still found it to be a lovely performance and a moving evening of great music.

    Comment by Donald Irving — September 30, 2012 at 1:39 am

  15. After the takeover:

    http://www.acoustics.org/press/157th/stetsonFig4.jpg

    Comment by Richard Buell — September 30, 2012 at 11:40 am

  16. At Saturday evening’s performance, several thoughts passed through my mind as I listened. First and foremost, what a work of genius is Porgy and Bess! What gorgeous music, what amazing invention, what innovative use of the chorus (the Act 1 Scene 2 “Gone, Gone Gone…” is surely one of the most musically extraordinary in all of opera, let alone American opera). And, what a solid grip of the piece had Bramwell Tovey, and how lucky I felt to to hear this remarkable work played to the hilt by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and sung by such a strong cast. And, I was truly relieved by what must have been a re-thought amplification, because much of what others have complained about having heard on Thursday and Friday was NOT happening on Saturday evening from my main-floor Row V listening point. Yes, there was some occasional obvious amplification, but not the over-the-top-evening-spoiling knob twiddling that was reported to afflict the earlier performances. While I would have preferred there be no amplification at all, what I heard did little or no damage to the overall moving and powerful experience of hearing this true American masterwork live. I agree that elements of the limited staging were unfortunate. To not see Porgy moving as a crippled person was disconcerting. Surely Alfred Walker could have affected at least a debilitating limp, which would also serve to help offset his tuxedoed appearance, which in turn could have been moderated by a less-formal outfit more suited to an inhabitant of Catfish Row. But what a wonderful ensemble cast, in general, though I agree that Jermaine Smith’s view of Sporting Life called more attention to himself than his character – a truly villainous creature who peddles cocaine, is an obvious womanizer, and is likely a pimp. Kudos are due to the TFC members for their constant involvement in the action and their focused and fabulous singing of their very demanding parts. So, all in all, I was very glad to have been present in Symphony Hall Saturday, and wish that the disappointed listeners from previous evenings could have heard what I heard there last night.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — September 30, 2012 at 12:14 pm

  17. I was very interested to read both the review and the comments on the BSO production of Porgy and Bess, because I had similar reactions to much of it when I was there on Saturday night. The worst part for me were several sudden bursts of very loud singing by the chorus which actually made me cringe. I did not enjoy the cuteness of the gesturing by the chorus either. My first surprise, however, was when the conductor jumped over to the piano during the overture and started banging away. Is that how the music was originally scored? I have never heard it that way before. I do agree that much of the diction of the singers was very unclear. Given the experience of the singers as described in the program, this should not have happened. I could only really understand them when they were not being drowned out. Amplification, however, was certainly not the answer; perhaps the conductor needed to adjust the loudness of the music for a piece in which understanding the story is essential. If I had not seen Porgy and Bess several times before and listened to it on CD’s, I would have found it very difficult to know what was going on a lot of the time. Sporting Life’s acting seemed to be that of a “comic” caricature. I was surprised that the good people of Catfish Row didn’t immediately run him out of town. I enjoyed the evening overall just because I love the music of Porgy and Bess, but I was disappointed in this production.

    Comment by Susan Neale — September 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm

  18. I found myself looking at the singer’s bios. Were they from Broadway, therefore use to miking. No, they had operatic credits.

    The miking was horrid.
    I found listening to it on the radio , Saturday night a better experience. At least throgh the raido I’m used to all the sound coming through one or two speakers.

    Very disappointing.

    L

    Comment by Leslie — October 1, 2012 at 8:04 am

  19. Mr. Patterson should have read his program prior to writing his review of the BSO’s “Porgy and Bess.” It’s one thing to rant on about the hall being amplified. It’s another to review a singer who was actually another singer! Mr. Patterson writes that Marquita Lister sang “Summertime,” a song sung by the character of Clara played by Angel Blue. In fact, Ms. Lister sang the role of Serena, who sings one of the opera’s most well known songs, “My Man’s Gone Now.” Thus, he did not review Ms. Lister’s performance, and in mentioning her, assigned to her an incorrect role. This is a real shame, because Ms. Lister’s performance was, in fact, quite moving, as other reviewers have noted. Those who have followed performances of Gershwin’s American classic over the last decade know that Marquita Lister is far better known for singing the role of Bess and has been touted as perhaps the best Bess in recent history, but took on the role of Serena, which she debuted at Tanglewood, to enlarge her repertoire, enrich her experience as a performer, and, hopefully, bring a new dimension to the role. I believe she has done this. But Mr. Patterson, in his haste to smart the BSO with his biting review about amplifying the artists, has neglected to acknowledge her performance at all. Perhaps Ms. Lister is owed an apology, not only for getting her mixed up with another cast member, but also for not acknowledging her moving contribution to the performance, as quoted in other reviews of these performances as well as those at Tanglewood.

    Comment by georgiana francisco — October 1, 2012 at 9:34 am

  20. Mr. Patterson did review Ms. Lister’s singing of “My Man’s Gone Now,” although he got the name of the singer wrong: “Soprano Angel Blue sang Serena’s ;My Mans Gone Now’ too tragically, her lower range appealed while the higher notes gave way to too much power and vibrato.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 1, 2012 at 10:24 am

  21. I thoroughly enjoyed the friday night show, even though the amplification was obvious from row HH because it was uneven enough to draw attention to itself. What’s interesting about doing a concert version of Porgy and Bess is that it serves as a means to highlight the orchestral score, since they’re using larger forces than would typically be in a pit band, and they’re placed front and center on the stage. As a result, the singers have more to compete against to be heard, which I suspect was one reason for the amplification, plus the fact that by doing it “semi-staged”, the singers aren’t always facing the audience to take full advantage of the hall’s acoustic. Also, doing three nights is a row is not the norm in the opera house, maybe the mikes also served to allow those singers that needed it to dial back a notch in order to survive through the weekend?
    Ironically Smith’s theatrics in “It Ain’t Necessarily So” obscured the best lyrics, a little more amplification there might have helped!

    Comment by Mark — October 1, 2012 at 10:30 am

  22. It is time to acknowledge the role errors that three alert readers, Richard Buell, Georgiana Francisco, and Jo Whipple noted; the review text now has Angel Blue as Clara and Marquita Lister as Serena. Mea culpa in the editing; I know this but missed it. I do wish to add that Lister was just superb… and one of the tragedies of that miking.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — October 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm

  23. “…I am one of those heathens — I need, absolutely need and absolutely want to hear, the words of songs.”

    Thank goodness for your brand of heathenism.

    Comment by Andrew — October 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm

  24. I agree with all of Mark’s comments above (though I was less enchanted by Smith’s Sportin’ Life interpretation). It was smart of him to point out the difficulty of performing this very taxing piece three evenings in a row. The touring companies were often double-cast , with the principals either taking the night off or moving to much smaller roles. As for the miking, I’ll leave it to others to carry the ‘torch of outrage’. It is fair to take the BSO to task for poor sound design, but not for trying it. To my mind, this was a unique situation – but If it were to become a trend, I’d be out there rioting in the streets with you!

    Comment by Michael Beattie — October 2, 2012 at 11:28 am

  25. I listened in front of large full range speakers and was appalled by the amplification.
    Everything was too loud at the level at which I listen to music. Turning the sound down
    would not have diminished the sense of the amplification of the singers. As a Bostonian who grew up listening in The Hall I feel sorry for those who were hearing the opera blasted at them.

    On the other hand, though not a great fan of the opera heretofore I was struck at last by its greatness as a grand opera that the Met should do. (I don’t remember the Met ever having done it.)

    Comment by Ed Robbins — October 2, 2012 at 2:53 pm

  26. If I were on a TV game show and the question came up, I’d say they had done it. I seem to remember it happening some years ago (how’s that for vagueness?).

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 2, 2012 at 5:03 pm

  27. Yes, the Met did it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porgy_and_Bess

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm

  28. Yes, I looked it up within a nanosecond of sending my remarks, realizing I could/should have looked it up sooner. It entered the repertoire 1985 with Levine conducting and Martina Arroyo heading the cast. Thank you Joe.

    Comment by Ed Robbins — October 2, 2012 at 10:28 pm

  29. I wish I could muster Mr. Beattie’s equanimity on the amplification, but I can’t. My Friday night subscription seat is in the front row of the side of the second balcony, just a couple of seats from the stage. So I was only a few feet from the speakers. It was an abysmal experience, overwhelmingly loud and distorted. The upper range of all the women soloists was screechy. Only the bass (Porgy) sounded relatively normal (though overwhelmingly loud). Certainly the experience was very different depending on your location in the hall, but mine was so bad I left at intermission with both a headache and a deep disappointment that the BSO could do this. I have always experienced aural equality regardless of my seating location in Symphony Hall, but I left feeling tossed under the bus in favor of seats at the back of the hall.

    Comment by Barry — October 3, 2012 at 2:05 pm

  30. Such a shame, Barry. I’m sure if I had been sitting where you were I would have been furious. Far too many listeners seem to have shared your experience. For one person to have experienced distortion from poor sound design and bad placement of speakers is inexcusable. I consider myself lucky to have been sitting where I was.

    The amplification experiment seems to have been an unequivocal failure.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — October 3, 2012 at 8:54 pm

  31. What disappoints me is the number of people who think the amplification was bad because it produced unpleasant results and the lack of people who consider it wrong as a matter of principle. It’s a good thing I’m old, because it is evident that once the sound engineers get it right, audiences will accept, even demand, amplification to enhance their listening experience at every concert in Symphony Hall. It’s obviously coming, but hopefully I’ll be dead, or at least too feeble to travel into Boston, by then.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 4, 2012 at 2:51 am

  32. Joe Whipple: What disappoints me is the number of people who think the amplification was bad because it produced unpleasant results and the lack of people who consider it wrong as a matter of principle. It’s a good thing I’m old, because it is evident that once the sound engineers get it right, audiences will accept, even demand, amplification to enhance their listening experience at every concert in Symphony Hall.

    Joe, yes and no. This is a very big subject and it is way off the BMI’s aim. Yes, there were good examples in the history of audio when symphony orchestra played in “reinforced mode”. This refers to the times and to people that had very different reference points regarding sound reproduction. Today, during the times of horrible dilapidation of sound reproduction listening culture/knowledge, anything that sound people do pretty much condemned to deliver horrible result. Sound engineers of today have no usable tools, no proper knowledge, have very corrupted and very mistaken reference points to accomplish any more or less interesting artificial Sound. They have even no language that they might use dealing with synthetic Sound, not to mention that they have no evaluation methodology to assess what they do. It is absolutely no surprise to me that BSO’s parley into sound re-enforcement lead to unfortunate result and therefore I am pro absolute ban of those types of experiments.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — October 4, 2012 at 7:17 am

  33. I’m thankful that I missed out on screechy overamplification in the concert, but I think Romy may be overstating just a little bit. Amplified orchestral sound, as noted above, is already the norm at outdoor settings like Tanglewood, Wolf Trap in Virginia, or a host of other places. Most roadies are people with chronic hearing loss who should not be trusted with amplifiers, but I for one think Leo Beranek and friends have done remarkably good work with the system in the Koussevitzky Shed, which makes things audible and balanced, but not terribly distorted.

    I think amplification has no place with an orchestra in an acoustically resplendent concert hall -that would sort of be like showing up to an archery contest with a sniper’s rifle to show you can shoot better than everyone else. But this seems to be very much a special case, one where they already realized their error and tried to make an adjustment (though by the second performance, it’s too late to make major changes). Is it shocking and dismaying that someone even thought it was a good idea to let happen in the first place? Sure. Hopefully this feedback is not being restricted to this page, and BSO management will get a clear enough message to avoid trying it in the future.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — October 4, 2012 at 12:48 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.