Friday 14 February 2014

The Electrostatic Concert Hall

I suppose I have never really thought about this before.  If you are in the habit of attending live orchestral concert performances, the chances are that you will never hear the same orchestra, with the same conductor playing in two different concert halls.  When you go to see your local orchestra it is always in your local concert hall.  Sometimes you attend your local concert hall to see a guest orchestra.  Or even your local orchestra with a guest conductor.  When traveling, you might visit another concert hall and see another orchestra.  It is pretty rare that you will go on a road trip and take in a recital by your home orchestra.

Here in Montreal, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal is now in its second season in its new, purpose-built digs, the Maison Symphonique de Montréal, located right next door to its home for the previous 40-odd years, the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier.  We were there for the first time last night for a performance which included Ravel’s orchestral arrangement of Tombeau de Couperin, the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and Stravinsky's Petrouchka.  Unusually for an orchestral concert, the ensemble also provided an impromptu encore of Debussy’s Prelude de l’Apres-Midi d’une Faune.

More than anything else, the occasion prompted me to consider the effect of the venue on the sound of an orchestral performance.  The fact is, I was quite stunned at the magnitude of the difference between what I heard last night and what I have been used to hearing over the years in the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the difference was akin to listening to two radically different loudspeakers.  Listening to music in the new Maison Symphonique de Montréal, it seemed to me, was like listening to music on our Stax SR009 electrostatic headphones.  The absolute tonal neutrality, the extraordinary level of detail, and even the apparently constrained sense of dynamics are exactly what I am used to hearing when I don the electrostatics.  By comparison, the old Salle Wilfrid Pelletier has the more enveloping, warm, dynamic, smile-inducing sonic character of our B&W 802 Diamonds.  It is said that Dave Wilson voices his loudspeakers according to his experiences in Vienna’s Concert-Verein, a venue he reportedly attends on a regular basis.  For sure, Wilson speakers all conform to a recognizable “family” sound.

The new Maison Symphonique de Montréal does indeed have quite remarkable acoustics.  And it is new enough that it may be a few years yet before they finish fine-tuning it.  But the astonishing level of detail is both a boon and a problem.  When maestro Nagano’s foot slides as he gestures from one side of the podium to the other, I hear it.  From the middle seat of the back row.  Every chair scrape.  Even, once, I heard the rustle of paper as the violin soloist turned the page on his score during a quiet interlude.  Then there are other intrusive sounds that I can’t quite identify.  Can that possibly be a cello playing waaaay out of tune?  Surely not.  Can I hear people talking in the room next door?  Again, surely not.  But every last cough, unwrapping of a cough drop, clearing of the throat, all these things come across more clearly - and, I must observe, more obtrusively - than anything I have become accustomed to over the years.  I found myself wanting to continuously turn up the volume, just as I do when listening on the electrostatics.  Until we got to a loud bit, that is.

And so I found it rather odd.  We audiophile types tell ourselves all the time that the ultimate objective is the ability to accurately reproduce the sound of a live acoustic event.  And, in truth, it is a laudable objective, and one that is hard to argue cogently against.  And yet there I was, suddenly appreciative of both the extent to which live acoustic events differ in their own sonic presentation, and the nature of those differences - even when the performers, and, one might hope, the performances, are the same - in almost exactly the same way that loudspeakers, argued by many to be the most critical element of an audio system, differ in their sonic presentation.

If the sound of music heard in the Maison Symphonique de Montréal  can sound so dramatically different from the sound of the same music heard in the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, can one of those sounds be “right”?  And can the other be “wrong”?  Or is the Vienna Concert-Verein the only “right” one?….