I have no idea how to judge the sound of an amplified classical orchestra
I found myself sailing in vaguely familiar waters without a nautical chart or a weather forecast at last night's BlackCreek Festival concert, which centred around orchestral music.
The Rexall Centre is big enough (and close enough to Pearson airport) so that the sound of even a full symphony orchestra needs to be amplified. The sound system festival organizers are using picks up the sound from numerous floor-stand microphones arranged around the stage, meaning that output can be mixed with quite a lot of detail. The sound is very good -- clear and balanced from bass to treble, but with the seemingly unavoidable artificial quality that makes the higher strings sound thin and metallic.
The opening concert, featuring Placido Domingo and Sondra Radvanovsky, put the spolight on the voices, so it was easy to ignore the orchestra.
Last night's programme of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Suites and Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream was all about the orchestra (you can read my review in the Star here).
It only took a few bars of the Prokofiev to realise that I had no idea how to judge what conductor Lorin Maazel and the Castleton Festival Orchestra were doing, because a third party had taken over the role usually played by the concert venue in deciding what my ears were going to hear (it was a little bit like watching filmed opera, where the camera director has decided what we're going to see -- and when we're going to see it).
Solos were amped up. The first and second violins were often turned down. The violas (!) came through loud and clear a number of times when they really didn't need to. And, as a nearby friend commented at intermission, "that was the loudest harp I've ever heard."
Normally, this sort of texturing of the score would be the conductor's responsbility. Was Maazel aware of what his efforts sounded like a few metres away from the stage? Would he approve that someone else was second-guessing his dynamic choices?
All three pieces of music are so familiar. The music is easily accessible and filled with evocation and emotion. I can't see what benefit the composer's ideas get from the sonic boost.
Yes, the young players' attacks were, for the more part, clean. They played very, very well. But, even for a critic, listening to orchestral music is much more than a technical exercise.
But technical accuracy was the only criterion I had left to judge the performances. I really did feel adrift.
Unfortunately, I don't know if there's a better way to amplify orchestral music, so I can't offer constructive advice. All I do know is that, at the Montreal-area Lanaudière festival, to use a single example, I can hear an orchestra play outdoors as nature intended -- without amplification.