Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The joys of proximity

Steve Smith, reviewing a Carnegie Hall concert by the Emerson Quartet in The New York Times, observes that some ensembles and some music are best heard in "conspiratorial proximity:"

A point to ponder as Richmonders anticipate this fall's reopening of the Carpenter Theatre (formerly Carpenter Center) in the new CenterStage arts complex. The theater is smaller than Carnegie Hall – about 1,800 seats vs. 2,800 in the New York venue – but considerably larger than the spaces in which the Richmond Symphony has been playing for the past five years, and touring classical soloists and ensembles for far longer.

Since the orchestra is unlikely to expand its roster of musicians, its performances probably won't pack the same sonic punch as they have in 800-seat church sanctuaries. Nuances of tone color and articulation are even less likely to come across in the larger hall. Listeners who have become accustomed to hearing those subtleties as clearly as they hear big tunes and rousing climaxes – having listened to the symphony, figuratively, under headphones – will have to develop a new perspective.

Just what that perspective will be is a great unknown. Promoters of the downtown complex promise an improvement in acoustics over those of the old Carpenter Center. The proof will be in the hearing.

Note that the symphony's chamber-orchestra concerts are not returning to the downtown hall. That's partly so the orchestra can maintain some presence in the suburbs; but just as likely because a 30-to-50 piece ensemble, and the repertory scored for such forces, don't carry satisfactorily in an 1,800-seat hall.

The symphony's musicians no doubt will be glad to return to a "proper" concert hall. Its audience, however, will savor memories of hearing big romantic scores of Wagner, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and Verdi, and truly hearing tonal and timbral details of all kinds of orchestral music, in closer proximity than most concertgoers ever get to experience. (Proximity wasn't always a good thing: I don't hanker for another go at Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" with the sound of the percussion section resonating through my feet.)

Moving back to the Carpenter Theatre after five years in exile in the 3,600-seat Landmark Theater, the Virginia Opera and its patrons will, by contrast, return to relative intimacy. Mozart and Handel in the Landmark are not fond memories. In the Carpenter Theatre, the company's singers and smallish pit orchestra will project with far more power, and finer points of vocalization will become audible once more.

No word yet on what other classical music may be in store in the theater and CenterStage's two smaller venues, the 150-seat Rhythm Hall and 200-seat Gottwald Community Playhouse.

For chamber music, the format in which most touring classical artists have been brought to Richmond over the past 20 years, CenterStage will be at a competitive disadvantage with the University of Richmond's Camp Concert Hall, Virginia Commonwealth University's Vlahcevic Concert Hall and the Virginia Museum Theater, which will reopen once the museum's expansion project is completed next year. All three of these halls seat 500-600 patrons, a better size for hearing solo recitalists and chamber groups while generating enough ticket revenue to pay them.

For touring orchestras and opera troupes, as well as top-tier recitalists (the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming, Joshua Bell and Evgeny Kissin), the Carpenter Theatre certainly would offer better acoustics and sightlines than the Landmark Theater; but ticket prices for big ensembles and big names in an 1,800-seat hall likely would be higher than most Richmonders are prepared to pay, especially during a recession. It will be challenge enough for the Richmond Symphony to convince its patrons to pay more than the $25 or so they've gotten used to being charged for good seats at mainstage concerts.

Circumstances have conspired to condition Richmond's classical audience to intimacy. That habit will be hard to break, and on purely musical grounds there's a strong argument that it shouldn't be broken.