A Place for New Music: A Discussion on Concert Hall Venues

5. Appropriate Contexts

FRANK J. OTERI: So, in this country, most of the places that have the buzz value would not have it because of the acoustics. They would have it because of the environment.

RUSSELL JOHNSON: It’s mostly the performers on stage. It’s the music being played and the quality of the musicianship. Those two things together—that’s what really brings the audiences in, I think.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think another factor beyond the musicians who are playing there is the legacy of the musicians who once played there. Certainly that’s true of Carnegie Hall for classical music, and for jazz a place like the Village Vanguard where so many great live jazz recordings have been made over the years. Many of these recordings, like a Bobby Timmons Trio LP I was listening to last night, are stunning, but I don’t know if people are going to the Village Vanguard for the acoustics. They’re going for the history. They’re going there because this is where Coltrane and Bill Evans played.

RUSSELL JOHNSON: I think you’re missing something here. When I say the audiences are not aware of acoustics, all I am saying really is that that does not enter their consciousness. However, when they leave a performance, if they walk out the door at the Vanguard and they feel they’ve heard the musician that they want to hear and playing the kind of music that that man or woman plays, the acoustics of the Vanguard have still played a very, very important role. They’re probably completely unconscious of it, but when they go back to their homes, they’re going to be taking with them the memory of the whole thing, including the good acoustics. And of course, as you know, the Vanguard is the most crowded sardine can you can imagine. And the seating is most unusual. I can’t even imagine and people get a kick out of that. They’re in a very, very informal space and you sort of wedge yourself in at the Vanguard and the only times that I’ve ever been there it’s been absolutely packed. So acoustics are not all that important.

LIMOR TOMER: Max Gordon did not care one bit about acoustics, the fact that the Vanguard has good acoustics is just an accident. It’s an accident of nature and the artists made it what it is. And it happened—he didn’t care about jazz either. He didn’t! It happened.

FRANK J. OTERI: But Lorraine definitely does.

LIMOR TOMER: Lorraine definitely cares about something. And she cares passionately about many things.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now that’s a hall where you do hear the music because if somebody talks…watch out!

LIMOR TOMER: Yeah. But it’s the most wonderful place and you go there for the history and all that. And it does have great acoustics and people don’t talk, but I don’t think that it grew up there because it had great acoustics. I think that’s just something that we all appreciate and love about it.


Exterior of Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy
Photo courtesy Teatro alla Scala

FRANK J. OTERI: Places like Carnegie and the Vanguard are sort of like cathedrals in a way. They’re sacred spaces and playing in them carries so much weight, so much history. The same is true for places like La Scala in Milan or Covent Garden or the Concertgebouw. Can you have bad concerts in these places? Is it possible to have a bad experience? I had a bad experience at Carnegie Hall with a quintet by Giovanni Sollima but the same piece sounds great on my Walkman…

COLETTE DOMINGUES: I think of course you can have a bad concert at those reverent spaces because if the artist is irreverent and does not tune in to the natural feeling of the place, then they can quite abuse the space and come out with a sound that is unappreciated by an audience that would otherwise be appreciative. I think you can, a performer, a poor performer who’s not clued in can really create a bad environment.


Interior of the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Photo courtesy the Concertbouw

RUSSELL JOHNSON: I’m going to hazard a guess about Masur and St. John the Divine. My guess is that when he’s getting ready to take the New York Philharmonic up to St. John, he is extremely conscious of what work or works he’s going to take up to St. John the Divine. And he picks works that he feels will work fairly well, as well as possible, in the very, very reverberant acoustics of St. John.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: So it comes right back down to careful curation, careful selection.


The nave of St. John the Divine, New York, NY
Photo courtesy St. John the Divine

RUSSELL JOHNSON: I know him just well enough to be absolutely certain that this is very much on his mind whenever he has a date coming up at St. John the Divine.

FRANK J. OTERI: Of course, the old joke with that is, “Oh, I missed the concert at St. John the Divine last night.” “Quick, if you get up there by five you can still hear it.” Well, you know, that’s the thing. What works in certain spaces and what doesn’t. Part of it is the acoustics and part of it is the environment. How would you feel if you heard the Bang On A Can All-Stars at Preservation Hall in New Orleans? What kind of experience would that be and why?

COLETTE DOMINGUES: I think Bang On A Can would overfill the space with sound. The space couldn’t contain them. It’s a small space; it’s full of dark wood. It’s heavily clothed; it’s quite claustrophobic. And I think their sound would just overfill it and be inappropriate. Not because of the musical content but because of the volume of the space.


Interior of Preservation Hall
Photo courtesy Preservation Hall

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what about then hearing the Emerson String Quartet in Preservation Hall?

COLETTE DOMINGUES: That acoustic set would fit very nicely into Preservation Hall.

FRANK J. OTERI: But the hall is so set up just for one thing, traditional jazz. It would be like going to an Italian restaurant and being served lamb vindaloo! All of a sudden you have this incredible disconnect, which has to do with the venue as not necessarily the acoustics but what the expectations are of the audience that’s there.


The Atrium of the Liberty Science Center, New Jersey
Photo courtesy the Liberty Science Center

COLETTE DOMINGUES: I guess I would take more risks than you as a diner then, because I can see the Emerson String Quartet there. I mean last weekend I placed a pipa player, an electric guitarist, and a trombonist trio in Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, in the Health Floor Theater, with the doors open so that the constituents of the science museum could be attracted by the sound through the open doors and come in and see what was going on. It was a totally ridiculous environment in which to have these musicians, but it worked like a charm. It was a charm. It drew people in and it kept them there. We had just a few seats in a semi-circle, but you know, just imagine this is the middle of a science center where you just don’t expect to hear pipa, trombone, and guitar and it worked beautifully.

FRANK J. OTERI: So fantasy venue-performance pairings. A) for quality; B) for shock value. One that sounds a little bit of both. Would the Emerson Quartet at Preservation Hall have some shock value?

LIMOR TOMER: I don’t know. Why are you doing that? Just for marketing purposes or you know what I’m saying? I mean, if there is an organic reason to do something, well then by all means, let’s do it. But if it’s just to see…and also what would the Emerson be playing? Would they be playing a piece that was written by somehow who was doing an hommage to that kind of music? Are they doing Don Byron‘s take on do-do-do, or is it just Emerson playing Beethoven at Preservation Hall to sell more tickets or less tickets or…I don’t know, for me it has to be organic.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: For me at the Liberty Science Center, it was because the performance was part of a 48-hour webcast, so we were trying to make the connection for the Liberty Science Center between art and technology. So here we had a webcast using computer technologies on a health floor because the piece was a sonic meditation, so it was respectful of the environment insofar as the subject matter was conducive to the health floor. It was a sonic healing and it was a perfect choice. Liberty Science Center was a perfect choice for the art-technology combination. So it wasn’t purely for shock value, although the doors were open and people didn’t know what to expect. But it was part of organic whole; it had a purpose.

LIMOR TOMER: Right, it sounds to me like there was very conscious thought about how these whole, these points are connected, and so that makes perfect sense to me.

FRANK J. OTERI: Plus, perhaps you’re making a statement about tradition or about context. The thing I always love to say about Lincoln Center is that architecturally it’s a celebration of high modernism yet the majority of the music you hear there has nothing to do with high modernism. In a way, you know, the best possible music you could possibly hear in Lincoln Center would be music by Donald Martino or Charles Wuorinen because that music is sort of the sonic equivalent of what these spaces are visually. And…

COLETTE DOMINGUES: I would push it further and say Kyle Gann and William Duckworth also. The Time-Curve Preludes. Custer’s Ghost… To push it a little further.

FRANK J. OTERI: Even further into kind of minimalist or post-minimalist music, but yet at the same time, here you have this disconnect, you’re in a modern space and you’re hearing Brahms. That’s almost as disconcerting as going to La Scala and hearing Einstein on the Beach! I mean that’s sort of, but that’s what people go there for. I think most people would feel rather disconcerted if most of the programming at Lincoln Center, all of a sudden, was music written in the last 25 years, because that’s not the context of the place.

RUSSELL JOHNSON: You’re trying to match architectural style with music and what you’re overlooking is that once a building gets built it’s very, very rarely destroyed. So, civilized society always has a catalog of rooms that date from almost every style of the last 200-300 years. Now you don’t want to go around tearing them down just because the architecture of the façade doesn’t match the music on the inside. It’s that simple.

FRANK J. OTERI: There was a fantastic series of concerts produced in Europe a few years back in which there were concerts of chamber music from the 17th through the 19th centuries performed in rooms from those periods specifically designed for this music…

RUSSELL JOHNSON: Well, there are a lot of new operas on DVD that are performed in the very spaces that the action took place: Tosca and Don Giovanni, there are many, many DVDs of operas that are photographed, filmed in the appropriate, still-existing, physical surroundings.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s almost taking the notion of period instruments to the next step: period venue to these works. But this brings us back full circle to this question of the ideal place for new music. Maybe the ideal halls for new music haven’t been built yet.


The late Winter Garden at the World Trade Center
New York, NY

LIMOR TOMER: Well, you know, there used to be, there isn’t anymore, there used to be the worst venue for music, the worst! Worse than Lincoln Center or the Knitting Factory but they used to have the most interesting programming consistently eclectic new music, openness, just the most fabulous thing and that was the old Winter Garden, which is gone. The worst! I mean I wouldn’t even call it acoustics, I don’t know what it was! It was just awful and the program was just the most consistently brilliant from season to season, within the seasons, each concert crafted, presented, not in a condescending way to the audience, not being insiders but in an open and in a context…

COLETTE DOMINGUES: A beautiful offering.

LIMOR TOMER: A beautiful, gorgeous, open series that I think did more to bring new audiences to the music than any other place and it was the worst acoustically.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yet some things acoustically worked there. The Stephen Scott Bowed Piano Ensemble concert that was there, it sounded fantastic. That worked.

LIMOR TOMER: Part of it is that they, as opposed to a lot of other places that use amplification, their sound guys were so conscientious and the team was just so, worked so hard to compensate and to bring things out. And that helps a lot. But yeah, ideal venue, I don’t know if there is such a thing. I think it’s curation and an openness and a willingness to go there and a willingness to pay for rehearsals, that helps a lot in creating the perfect venue.