Ada Lousie Huxtable’s review of Victoria Newhouse’s book, “Site and Sound” is good reading for anyone who enjoys live music, especially of the formal-ish/performed in a concert hall variety of live music. Huxtable, like many others, makes some trenchant observations of how our idea of performance spaces came to be and, frankly, how lame they are at times.
What really happened during the Byzantine artistic and political process of creating Lincoln Center? How did a group of “patrician white males,” as she so coolly characterizes them, and a consortium of architects working at a time when modernism had developed its own “establishment power elite” create the model that set the conservative consensus for a generation of performing-arts centers that followed? (Think Washington’s Kennedy Center, a bland box of posh banality in a location of daunting public inaccessibility.)
Needless to say, that last bit about the Kennedy Center resonates. And then some!
For far too many today, live music is expensive, remote, and two-dimensional. And we’ve been conditioned to think of this situation as the norm, the logistics especially – musicians on stage, audience in seats, director’s back to the crowd. Which means audiences routinely lose out on one of the most interesting, human, sometimes funny, and occasionally very revealing parts of a performance – the give and take between conductor/director and performers/choir.
We singers know all the ways in which a familiar piece of music is interpreted and shaped. The audience doesn’t see how that happens because they don’t see how the director coaxes that out into performance. The audience doesn’t see that that the director, at all times, has near constant eye contact with all the performers, so she can lead, time, warn, or encourage. And it’s fun to see that!
As for the performers, if it’s a traditional box-shaped room, we don’t have any clue how the audience is responding in the back. They’re a many-tiny-headed blur, especially if the lights go down when the music starts. We’re almost glad when we see people waving their lighters or cellphones in solidarity or appreciation, “Oh look they’re still there!” Or, just as bad, they’re on three sides, so the audience is looming over us from all directions – gee, no pressure there! – and we don’t see anyone over the first level unless we crane our necks.
Enter the idea of music in the round. It can be tricky for the singers, and it can take audiences by surprise when the music organically emerges out of the crowd without a declared start. VCS should know, we’ve done it several times, especially in our last concert, the Celtic Arts Festival. And it is work. But it can be so much warmer, so much more human.
Audiences tell us that an evening became that much more unforgettable because they felt like they were part of us, of that wall of sound. All of a sudden they were part of this big thing that carries as much as it sustains. And you, the audience, have no idea how much we enjoy your reactions when a lone voice begins to chant Latin, or a perfectly harmonious hum floats over the murmurs of intermission. Kids stop fidgeting, heads bob, your voices still, and then you simply settle into the warmth of great sound. We know you’re listening, we see your faces and if you like what you hear. And like all performers, none of it means squat to us if you don’t like what you hear.