For the Love of Music: Click, Buy, Go, Listen, Reflect

At some point in my relationship with Facebook, Mr. Al Gorithm figured out that I like live music. Once he pegged me as a concertgoer, Mr. Gorithm began stuffing my timeline with ads for concerts. This hasn't bothered me at all. In fact, I often click through to the venue's website and buy a ticket or two. Mr. Gorithm seems aware of that as well because the ads have proliferated, especially those from Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. This has had an impact on my listening life, and by extension my listening work. Click, buy, go, listen, reflect.

Some audio critics consider classical music playing unamplified in a good-sounding hall to be the ultimate standard against which music reproduction in the home must be judged. As with so many things where audio critics are concerned, this is not a unanimous belief, and there are lots of ways to pick holes in it. Classical music is just one kind of music. There are other kinds of live music, and live music experiences, even if you limit yourself to unamplified music. And why would you do that? Disregarding amplified music cuts off whole realms of concertgoing (and home listening) experience. A bad-sounding concert hall isn't a good standard against which to judge anything. Using the live experience as a standard for the home experience is an apples-and-oranges mindset. The list of reservations could go on forever.

Still, I like what I like, and I do like going to concert halls to hear an orchestra, a pianist, or both live in the flesh. The prospect of having a direct line of sight to the musicians is intriguing. The prospect of drinking in the direct and reflected sound of an orchestra playing in a great hall is electrifying. And I can't help mulling over what I've heard, during and after the event. When in the course of an audio review I mention the concert hall experience, the odds are now good that my last concert hall experience was a recent one, no more than a few weeks or months in the past.

I'm a New Yorker, so when I go to hear an orchestra, it'll usually be in either Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall. As an acoustic standard, Carnegie Hall is a no-brainer. It is widely acknowledged to be the best-sounding concert hall in New York and is competitive with any of the world's great halls. (I can say that with confidence because my travels have taken me to Vienna's Musikverein and Konzerthaus, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, and Berlin's Philharmonie, among others.)

David Geffen Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, is more problematic as an acoustic standard. When it opened as Philharmonic Hall in 1962, its acoustic shortcomings quickly made themselves apparent. Audio pioneer Avery Fisher funded a costly renovation in 1973 and the hall was renamed after him. But Avery Fisher Hall was still not deemed good enough. So David Geffen has funded another renovation and the hall will be re-renamed after him. The version I've been visiting lately already wears the Geffen name but, with the renovation looming in the near future, still has the 1973 Fisher acoustics.

In terms of dynamics, Fisher/Geffen is a good hall half the time. What it does well is pianissimo. In a performance of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, when the pianist Stephen Hough dropped to a whisper for passages of surpassing tenderness, accompanied by Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic in the most sensitive fashion, my concertgoing companion and I could hear each tiny golden note and we were practically moved to tears. A solo performance by Murray Perahia (in works by Haydn and Brahms, plus Beethoven's Hammerklavier) showed just how well the hall can deliver the piano at low to moderate volumes, turning only a little clattery at the highest ones.

That brings us to what Fisher/Geffen does poorly: fortissimo. A rambunctious performance of Holst's The Planets—or really, pretty much anything that gets loud—tended to make the hall harden in my ears in "Mars: The Bringer of War," with the strings suffering the most. It's not the sound of an amp clipping or a loudspeaker being overdriven, of course. It's the sound of acoustic chaos flapping my eardrums. But I've learned recently is that even a great hall can overdrive my ears. Sitting 15 rows from the stage at Carnegie Hall, a performance of Bruckner made my hearing distort and triggered my fight-or-flight instinct. Hearing damage is an occupational hazard for orchestral players.

Please don't get the impression that I go to concerts for the acoustics. I go, of course, for the music. A good seat in an acoustically favorable hall is just icing on the cake. Lately my ticket buying has oriented itself to a bucket list. There are still loads of great works I have yet to hear live. Two days before I posted this blog I witnessed Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra playing Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica, at Carnegie Hall. The first of Beethoven's truly great symphonies, the one that turned the world on its ear, was something I'd been hungrily anticipating all my life. Click, buy, go, listen, marvel.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, available in both print and Kindle editions.

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