Oh, joy, heel-clicking, rapturous joy. Both Twin Cities orchestras have survived lockouts and are performing again. During the early part of the 2014-15 season, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra still performed in its beautiful, curved Ordway concert hall. On a recent evening, however, I found myself seated high up in the new music box. Now, it’s: “Grumble, grumble, grumble. Look what they’ve foisted on us.”
Most music halls resemble either a shell or a box. The Ordway’s original concert hall takes its visual cues from ancient Greek and Roman amphitheaters, which curve gently, joining audience and musicians as part of a natural form, a shell tossed up on the sand, yet in whose ear you can hear the waves.
Now, instead, the SPCO plays in a packing box. For years, the same has been true across the river in Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall, which is constructed like a long, narrow trench, hung with threatening white cubes. Don’t look up. They might fall.
The SPCO’s box is lined with white Bubble Wrap and Styrofoam pellets. Above extend stiff excelsior waves, tinted brown. Maybe they’re shredded grocery bags.
“But,” my husband says, trying to alleviate my distress, “all this packaging is supposed to create wonderful acoustics.” Let’s listen. Soon the musicians are on stage. They will play the entire concert of 70 minutes in one fell swoop. Led by lithe, Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who isn’t wearing shoes. Nor is white-gowned mezzo-soprano Nerea Berraondo. Do bare feet soften against unwanted noise? This performance will be taped for rebroadcast.
As the orchestra plays, the minutes stretch. It’s not comfortable in my seat, which looks and feels like a folding chair. I ponder the opening remarks by SPCO Board President Bruce Coppock, who has emphasized the orchestra’s joy in the new music box’s astonishing acoustics.
Later, I lie in the dark, unable to sleep. Slowly, it occurs to me that this evening’s music was not composed in the era of acoustical engineering. It was a pastiche of Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor — Schubert, who is beloved for inserting nature sounds in his music.
Today, in the era of acoustical engineering, most music played by orchestras was composed for halls that resemble more the original Ordway hall. Composers never meant us to hear a pin drop on stage. Rather, they hoped to produce auditory and, I would add, visual delight. For the earliest music, we would have been seated under the stars.
Recently, I had a very satisfying musical experience under the shed at the Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer venue in western Massachusetts. I sat in the open air, protected by the tent with no walls. A light rain was falling outside. On stage, Yo-Yo Ma played Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. Not only is Ma probably the best string player in the United States today, but he is also a generous soul. This rehearsal allowed for humor and repartee with the audience.
Ma’s musicianship and his rapport with the orchestra and the audience could not have been higher. Yet all around us played small, natural sounds, including a distant rumble of thunder. In its essence, making music is a natural thing. It has nothing much to do with acoustics.
Spare me your talk of acoustics. So what if the original Ordway hall, with its beautiful surround, didn’t have perfect acoustics in some areas? I loved sitting there, wrapped in beauty and elegance, with nothing whatsoever resembling Styrofoam accompanying me. If I am going to be sent anywhere by contemporary music making, let it start in a beautiful space that cradles me toward Elysium.
Margot Fortunato Galt, of St. Paul, is a writer and teacher.