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The View From the Cheap Seats

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Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Orchestra Hall, October 11

By Sarah Bryan Miller

When I spent a college semester studying in England I didn't concentrate unduly on my formal course work , but I did take full advantage of London's cultural life--plays, concerts, opera, galleries. Some were classic, some contemporary; some were wonderful, some ghastly. It was rare that I didn't attend at least one performance a day, and as a result, I became something of an expert in cheap seats.

If one is attending the symphony or opera primarily to hear the music, one is very often best off in the least expensive seats. This often comes as a surprise to people who think there ought to be a correlation between price and sound. But in most theaters the box seats--usually the priciest, with amenities like private cloakrooms and separation from the hoi polloi--are the worst acoustically. This remains true of the revamped Orchestra Hall, where sitting in the back of a box remains remarkably similar to sitting in a closet with the door open to a stereo playing in the next room. In the back of an Orchestra Hall box you can see the performers only by perching on a sort of high chair. Overall, your closet is probably more comfortable.

The cheap seats in the gallery are usually acoustically superior because they lack the obstructions to sound provided by overhangs and because the sound has had time and space to roll around before arriving at the listener's ear. Orchestra Hall's gallery has always been a good place to listen, and it's even better now, benefiting from the addition of attic space above the hall and the subtraction of ventilating equipment that used to be right above the ceiling. The back of the second balcony at the Lyric Opera also offers superb sound, even better than on the main floor, where the orchestra often swamps the voices. And the front of the second balcony is a much better place to sit than the back of the first balcony.

Yet stratospheric seats carry their own penalties. Some of these are social; at Covent Garden the cheap seats have their own separate side entrance away from the swells. Amenities, such as restrooms, may be fewer and farther away as well. At the Lyric those who sit in the rear of the second balcony are well advised to carry high-powered binoculars, because the singers are standing the best part of a city block away. Moreover, many directors and designers never trouble to go upstairs, so they provide stage pictures that are aimed squarely at the main floor, with important aspects often lost to the upper half of the house. At Orchestra Hall the gallery seats, formerly narrow and smashed together, still won't win any awards for roominess, and the pitch is still precipitous, but at the end of a concert patrons should at least be able to get up without any tingling in their extremities.

In Europe there's another kind of cheap seat, behind and above the orchestra and the stage--called "festival seating" for reasons that have apparently faded into the mists of time. On several occasions I sat in these seats at Royal Albert Hall, perched next to the organ pipes. The sound wasn't very good--no surprise since the whole idea is to send it in the opposite direction, into the auditorium--but I could observe conductors' expressions and watch how singers employed their back muscles in breathing. However, since I was attending primarily to listen, I quickly learned to sit there only when there were no other cheap seats available.

The renovation of Orchestra Hall has brought many positive changes--and the tinkering to get the sound just right continues and will continue for the foreseeable future--but it has also brought some negatives. These include tacky signage and banners that look as though they were bought at a discount-mall Christmas shop, ugly brass railings on the stage--and festival seating.

They call it "terrace seating" here, but the sound at a recent open rehearsal was just as bad as in Albert Hall--harsh and unbalanced. Yet these are not cheap seats. They're now among the pricier seats at Orchestra Hall, going for $35 to $55. Compare that to the back of the main floor, at $35 to $60; the upper balcony (a terrible place to listen even postrenovation, with the floor of the gallery only a few feet above your head, effectively killing the sound and any trace of presence), at $10 to $40; or the gallery at $7 to $30. The terrace seats are the Orchestral Association's answer to losing several hundred seats to the cause of providing more space for rear ends and legs; given the extent of the remodeling, particularly the deepening of the stage, one wonders why they didn't just move the entire stage back farther and add rows at the front of the main floor.

The terrace seats also offer annoyances to the folks sitting in the rest of the hall. At one point during Saturday night's concert, for example, a spirited discussion between several ushers could be observed at house left. A loud sneeze from a concertgoer at house right gave evidence of the improved acoustics, joining the music with the effect of a rifle shot. Should you ever find yourself seated there, don't let your chin droop to your chest, for you'll be observed by a couple of thousand people.

These seats have to be a distraction to the players and conductor too. Which perhaps helps explain Daniel Barenboim's problems in keeping his forces together Saturday night.

Last weekend's concerts--an all-choral program of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony--marked the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Chorus's founding by Margaret Hillis at the request of Fritz Reiner. Unfortunately, especially given the festive atmosphere, the problems of placing the chorus in the revamped hall haven't yet been solved.

For the opening concert a week before, the chorus had been placed in four sections across the back of the stage in the terrace seating (with a small, no doubt highly uncomfortable audience seated between them and the orchestra). Last weekend the chorus was in the central sections, with the audience (and ushers) occupying the side sections. The sound, from the lower balcony, was still oddly distant and not as clear as it should be, and choristers say they still can't hear one another or the orchestra properly.

The Symphony of Psalms, a thoughtful, intriguing piece composed in 1930, hasn't received the recognition it deserves. Scored for low strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and voices, it sets portions of three psalms: 39 ("Hear my prayer, O Lord, listen to my cry"), 40 ("I waited for the Lord"), and 150 ("O praise God in his holy place"). The intonation was fine from all concerned, but things occasionally threatened to fall apart. Not all entrances were together. Barenboim's tempi were odd in many places--sometimes rushed, sometimes dragging--and there usually wasn't much hint of an interior logic behind his choices.

Things got worse in the Beethoven, much of which was unforgivably sloppy. There were some scrappy moments in the violins early on, and disaster struck in the first capitulation of the famous "Ode to Joy" theme by the low strings, which came in at two completely different speeds. Unbelievably, the violins then imitated them when it was their turn to play the big tune. CSO members can play almost anything under almost any circumstances; when they mess up like that it usually means they've been led seriously astray by the conductor. And as it was unclear whether he was beating in two or in four, it's not at all surprising that he could be misread. It seems likely that Barenboim was being what he's pleased to style "spontaneous"--instead of going in with a clear idea of what he wants and how he wants to get it (and rehearsing it that way), he varies his music making according to whim, which sometimes throws off his musicians, vocal and instrumental. It makes one long for the days of Solti; whether you liked his interpretations or not, at least they were clearly thought-out and consistently acted upon.

In another badly considered move, the soloists for the Beethoven were stuck in the bottom row of the terrace seats with the chorus--and they were swamped as they tried to compete with the full orchestra and chorus. When big-voiced tenor Ben Heppner can't be heard you know something is wrong. Baritone Robert Holl responded to the challenge by woofing inordinately. Rosemarie Lang failed to make any impression, drowned by the combined forces and dressed in black almost like a member of the chorus (the first rule for singing the mezzo-soprano part in the Ninth, one of the most ungrateful parts in the symphonic repertoire, is to wear a red dress and smile a lot). Only Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski managed to float her lovely, pure sound above it all.

Some peculiar acoustical anomaly in the hall made it sound as though someone were chanting in a low register during the final fast exposition of the main theme. The upper string sound remains overly harsh, while a solo by the CSO's excellent principal flutist, Donald Peck, seemed to pierce the skull. Much has been done to help Orchestra Hall's legendarily dry acoustics. Much still remains to be done.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Daniel Barenboim photo/ uncredited.

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