June 16, 2007
Venues and the audience experienceby Robert Levine
Greg Sandow quoted Eric Lin writing:
Now, lest anyone accuse me of only likely contemporary music since I'm a composer, I'll admit that I love many works in the Canon. I recently went to hear the Emerson String Quartet play some of the late Beethoven quartets at Carnegie with a friend and I was expecting to really enjoy the concert. It was one of the most horrendous concert experiences I've ever endured, and I'm pretty sure my friend didn't enjoy the night out much either....From a musical level, I though the Emerson Quartet's performance was superb. But the disconnect between the energy level on stage and the lack thereof in the audience was rather painful. Honestly, I thought a lot of people looked rather bored; it's a subjective observation, yes, but it's my honest opinion.
There's a reason that "chamber music" is called "chamber music." It's intended to be performed in intimate settings. Hearing the Beethoven quartets in Carnegie is liking seeing Hamlet (without TV screens or amplification) at the Rose Bowl.
I think that orchestras have a similar problem. Look at the venues that Mozart and Beethoven and Bruckner wrote for; halls like the Musikverein and the old Leipzig Gewandhaus (destroyed during WW II). Compare those to the barns we play in today. No, I don't think that the solution to our problems is simply to build new halls (although I'd sure appreciate the kind of government support for halls that I see all around us for ball parks and football stadia). But, when we do build new halls, let's build them so that they provide an experience that's better than the iPod and not worse. That means, in particular, that they should be small.
We spend way too much money as an industry trying to fill halls with too many seats. Smaller halls mean not only fewer seats to sell, and therefore lower marketing costs, but far more energy and intimacy in the hall. Audiences want a connection with the performers? Don't put the audiences in the next county.
The most memorable concerts I've ever attended have been, without exception, when I was either right on top of the orchestra (in the chorus risers in Berlin or in the very front row at the Salzburg Festival, courtesy of Alberto Vilar) or in a really intimate space. When I was growing up, the San Francisco Symphony used to do its mid-Peninsula runouts at a wooden gym at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, which seated about 2000 people packed together on wooden risers. I still remember details from those concerts; it was like sitting in the orchestra. And the concerts were always packed.
Posted by rlevine at June 16, 2007 10:23 AM
Having recently spent two years in Moscow, listening to dozens of concerts in two magnificent halls - the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall (both around 1,600 seats) - I do agree that smaller can be better.
However, Carnegie (2,800) and Symphony Hall (2,600) are, as we all know, among the best-sounding halls in the world, and the US now has many fine halls in the 2,500-seat range. Too big for a recital or a string quartet, to be sure, but they work just fine for orchestras, of course.
The bottom line, surely, is the bottom line. Orchestras, as Mr. Levine of course well knows, have to sell tickets, and you can generate more revenue in a bigger hall. There's a tradeoff, of course, in that the larger venue might provide an inferior experience and therefore draw fewer people. But at a time that everyone says that orchestras need to be more accessible, part of that accessibility is ticket prices, and smaller halls usually lead to pricier tickets, thus harming accessibility efforts.
Posted by: Marko Velikonja at June 16, 2007 11:14 AM
"However, Carnegie (2,800) and Symphony Hall (2,600) are, as we all know, among the best-sounding halls in the world, and the US now has many fine halls in the 2,500-seat range. Too big for a recital or a string quartet, to be sure, but they work just fine for orchestras, of course."
Carnegie is not regarded as quite in the same league acoustically as the three classics: Boston, Amsterdam, and Vienna. I think there are a number of 2,000+ seat halls that are OK. but they're a long way from providing the kind of audience experience that is ideal.
"But at a time that everyone says that orchestras need to be more accessible, part of that accessibility is ticket prices, and smaller halls usually lead to pricier tickets, thus harming accessibility efforts."
You're forgetting that tickets not only produce revenue but incur marketing costs. Fewer available seats + a better experience = less money spent needing to market to marginally interested buyers.
Posted by: Robert Levine at June 16, 2007 3:32 PM
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