IN: Reviews

Splitting or Saving Ear Drums


We don’t need these at Symphony.

With piccolo’s piercing trills, trumpet’s penetrating drills, timpani’s thundering fills, orchestra’s tutti tuning, and patrons’ neglect of the intimate and considerate whisper, concert halls reach a colossal crescendo even before the downbeat.

Luigi Russolo’s Art of Noises? John Cage’s chance music? Acid Rock’s decibels?

We are seated before the concert and at intermission in a Bach-Beethoven-Brahms music-making tradition—we are, of course, at Symphony. Would you, though, ever believe it? No calm before a Beethoven storm as it were. No environmental prep for a Debussy naturescape.

Does anyone else, after having been seated, consider fleeing such din? Or, if she chooses to take a seat and tries to carry on a civil conversation, finds it necessary to raise her voice, sometimes to unspeakable levels? I am told that to bring the matter up will be to no avail. After all, several reasons can be given for not stopping the oft brutal assaults on the ear, never mind our sensitivities.

First, let us suppose that simply not enough practice space exists offstage for the mass of orchestral players required for typical symphonic outings. Second, unquestionably, not all musicians are still practicing their parts: they are warming up. A third possibility, in some cases, might be musicians needing to adjust to the acoustics of an unfamiliar space.

Are there other reasons?

Maybe it is we 21st century concertgoers who have learned the art of blocking out unwanted sound. I remember asking the repairman if the washing machine always made that certain thumping sound and being told, “Yes. But you’ll get used to it.”  Having shelled out good money for the evening’s advertised music, it is difficult to imagine most of us as Russolo or Cage devotees stopping to listen, to enjoy, never mind, to be moved. If we did, the Musicians Union might then catch on, and then what?

Yet another piece of the puzzle at play—the late-comers lengthening the hullabaloo. Have you noticed those preconcert alerts (turn off cell phones and refrain from taking photos) at times being barely audible beneath the hall’s cacophony?

Who are these practitioners? We know who you are. From professional to community to school organizations, the plague has struck. One wonders why the ballet and the theater have not yet succumbed to often near deafening onstage run-throughs and warmups before their gathering audiences.

Is there any way to reset or, at the very least, retune what unluckily seems now a dilemma, a no way out? Here is an invitation to reflect on the matter. Or, before coming up with some suggestions, perhaps it better first to ask ourselves if we even care.  

Can the music director of the BSO, for instance, direct his corps to march onto to the stage Berlin Philharmonic-style, ready for the downbeat?

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.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. When Harry Christophers took over as Music Director of Handel & Haydn Society, he decided that he wanted for the orchestra and chorus to make an entrance as is more typical in Europe. This wasn’t difficult for the singers, but a number of players objected on the grounds that their instruments need to adapt to the climate on the stage, especially period instruments which are often more sensitive to that than their modern counterparts.

    The point is definitely valid.

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — March 22, 2020 at 12:39 am

  2. I love sitting in the hall prior to a concert watching the musicians meander into their seats and listening to them tuning up. This is also, in it’s own way, music and I have never found it overwhelming or a hindrance to conversation. I like the way the musicians enter as individuals and by the time the conductor joins them have become a single entity. All of this helps ease me into a receptive frame of mind for the concert itself. I’ve always been grateful that Boston doesn’t have the rituals other orchestras have. That the orchestra doesn’t march in formation to it’s seats. That the concertmaster doesn’t make a unique entrance accompanied by applause, but is seen more as the first among equals. Changing these things would change an experience that I have treasured for many years.

    Comment by jim — March 22, 2020 at 11:16 am

  3. When I was able to subscribe to BSO concerts, I enjoyed the pre-concert talks on Thursday evenings and found them a useful preparation for listening to unfamiliar pieces. After I had been going for several years, the time of the talks was shifted — to begin (and, more importantly, end) fifteen minutes earlier — because the musicians needed to have the stage available. With the extra time, one woodwind player would promptly take his seat and proceed to squawk as loudly as he could with his reeds. Nobody else seemed to need so much time. I’ve never been backstage at Symphony Hall, so I don’t know what could have made it impossible for this one gentleman to do what he had to backstage like everybody else.

    It was not many years after the time was changed that the Thursday pre-concert talks were stopped altogether. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always suspected the the change of time was a factor, and I’ve blamed the reed player for his obsession with being onstage. (BTW, I never attempted to identify the culprit.)

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 1, 2020 at 7:30 pm

  4. Personally I never found tuning time “noisy” and “unbearable”; it was Tradition and it’s Supposed to be like that! Some people must have hearing problems. It’s much more like the morning avian cacophony I remember from living in Belmont–annoyingly early in the morning the birds seem to chirp in unison! Think of tuning time as randomly serialized 12-tone music. Then comes the oboe “A” and things start changing until finally they’re all awaiting the conductor. To go totally far afield but show the principle: many years ago a RR group had its monthly meeting “on tour” with speaker and slides at Stall Four of the Conway Scenic Railroad’s roundhouse. Of course the other stalls were active and the business portion of the meeting got “put aside” while we listened enthralled to the sounds from the Age of Steam of their two locomotives’ being bedded down for the night. Next year we scheduled that bit of the locomotives’ bedding down into the meting schedule!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — April 2, 2020 at 11:06 pm

  5. Nathan Redshield — It isn’t onstage tuning that I found problematic. After I’ve finished my espresso and arrive at my seat ten or fifteen minutes before (scheduled) curtain, I have absolutely no problem with the musicians tuning, playing over the challenging bits etc. And for several years, it was fun to see how late Jason Snider would arrive without missing the oboe’s A. It’s only the extension of tuning time by 15 minutes that annoys me to no end. I still think that this male prima donna stole our pre-concert talks from us. If I had seen any other musicians dashing onstage at the earlier conclusion of the lecture, I’d feel differently about it.

    On the other hand, I must admit, now that I think of it, that before the talks were pushed back, there were up to a half dozen musicians flooding the stage as soon as the talk was over.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 18, 2020 at 3:28 pm

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