New York Philharmonic’s 2011 Free Memorial Day Concert at Cathedral of St. John the Divine

I went last year and found the acoustics to be a major trial, but decided to go back this year with a different mind-set.  As a patron donor to the Philharmonic, I am offered a VIP pass to the reserved section up-front, so I don't have to stand on-line outside.  (An incentive to be a donor…) 

On offer this year was a topically appropriate Memorial Day concert of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica"), with its famous funeral march movement.  I decided that the best way to approach this is just to revel in the sonorities and not pay too much attention to whether the music was particularly coherent sonically. 

The acoustic of the building and the way the orchestra was set up guarantee that the experience would not be anything like hearing a concert performance in a fine concert hall.  The music sounds unfocused, blurry, with loose-knit ensemble as the musicians can't hear each other and the sounds are dispersed by the instruments in all different directions in a large, sound-reflective interior space.  People sitting far in the back would tend not to hear anything being played below a dynamic level of about mezzo-piano.  I was sitting up front, ten rows from the orchestra.  When they played softly, things were moderately well focused and the echo effects were not a major problem.  As dynamic range increased, sonic delay and dispersion became a big issue.  Loud tutti passages were a blur of sonic splendor with random bits of detail sticking out, balances all askew.  The horns, seated at the back of the orchestra and pointing back into a large open space, suffered a delay in speaking and projected an almost out-of-body sort of sound due to the reflection.  (Actually, it occurred to me that if they substituted trombones for french horns, some of this coordination problem might be alleviated.  As it was, the trombones had the evening off and the horns struggled to be heard.) 

The result was a travesty of Beethoven, despite the valiant efforts of Alan Gilbert and the orchestra, but a uniquely interesting sonic experience, nonetheless, which reasonably suggested the idea of Beethoven heard through a fun-house distorted lens..  The hall had less of a detrimental effect in the Barber – no winds pointing off in odd directions, longer stretches of soft playing during which sonic delay was not a problem, and a slower harmonic motion in the music resulting in fewer accidental dissonances.  (I wonder how Bruckner would sound in the Cathedral??)

Here's an idea for future NYP Memorial Day events at the Cathedral.  Why not commission some composers to write pieces particularly adapted to being performed in this acoustic environment?  As it seems unlikely that the Cathedral or the orchestra would invest in costly acoustic modifications for what is an annual one-off event, why not take advantage of this unusual sonic environment by conceiving music intended to make use of it?  (One existing piece that might work in this setting is Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus, but I'm sure that a talented composer producing something intended for this space could produce something new that would be appropriate.)  How about Gilbert's buddy, Magnus Lindberg?  He could undoubtedly come up with something interesting for a space like this.  Or Nico Muhly, whose musical experiments might lend themselves to this sort of task?  Perhaps the Philharmonic could try to come up with some sponsors who would be willing to commission something like this.

Otherwise, anyone interested in hearing a comprehensible sonically-focused performance of standard repertory should stay away.  Those interested in experiencing unusual sonics presenting some sort of version of a quasi-recognized classic will continue to find this interesting, both as a social experience and a musical one.  It is certainly an unusual experience.

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