Venue Reflections

This past weekend I live-blogged my third Bang on a Can Marathon concert experience. I’m lucky enough to have a New York State School Music Association young composer call-for-scores judging session the two days following the marathon every year, so I’ve made it a point to come in early and let folks who aren’t in Lower Manhattan know what’s going on during the massive concert. This year in particular was interesting because of the change in locations, as this presented the opportunity to compare and contrast the same event in two very different performance spaces.

This was the fourth marathon I’ve attended in a row, with the first three having been presented at the Winter Garden Atrium in the World Financial Center. A cavernous space illuminated by thousands of windows facing the Hudson River, the Winter Garden has a high-end shopping mall-like quality that exemplifies the concept of an “alternative venue.” It is big enough to give one the freedom to get up and walk around the edge of the audience, go get a bite to eat in the adjoining food court, or traverse the balconies during the concerts. Acoustically, the venue is a mixed bag—the cathedral-like room is challenging when a detail-oriented piece is being performed, but loud volumes aren’t distracting and the amplified nature of the music being presented allows for audience members to talk freely during the performances.

Due to renovations at the Winter Garden, Sunday’s marathon was forced to move to a substitute location in the Schimmel Center for the Arts at Pace University, a 700-seat traditional theater, and the shift in tone both in terms of the concert itself and the audience watching it was, from my perspective, quite stark.

For much of the event, the sound quality of the performances was much clearer than in the Winter Garden, and nuances and subtleties that would have been lost were quite strong here. The extensive use of amplification made for a slightly uneven experience at times, especially with such a wide variety of ensembles and instruments—many groups were balanced perfectly, but a few of the larger ensembles had uneven mixes and at least one group was painfully loud for the space. In general, performances in which detail was important were enhanced while performances that relied on broader gestures did not have as much impact as they might have in the larger space.

The array of audience seating allowed those in attendance to be much closer to the artists on stage as well, providing a more intimate experience. That being said, the change in feel from the audience’s perspective throughout the marathon was visceral; the audience seemed to be more subdued and less mobile, resulting in a much more “traditional” concert experience. Lighting design, not really an option in the sunlit atrium, was also used to a great degree and was quite effective.

Overall, the marathon was a successful and enjoyable experience, especially for those of us who stuck around through the entire event. (I stopped blogging before the penultimate performance but stayed till the end.) It was also an education for those of us interested in how venues affect the concert experience as well as how various musical styles “play” in different spaces.

One thought on “Venue Reflections

  1. Paul H. Muller

    I’ve had a parallel experience in two years of outdoor performances at the Ojai Music Festival. Last year ‘Inuksuit’ was performed in a park with some 48 percussionists scattered over a large area playing on all manner of loud instruments. There was a big crowd and everyone walked around looking, listening and also quietly chatting. Seemed a good blend between the informal setting, the scale of the piece and the audience behavior.

    At this most recent Ojai Festival two other John Luther Adams pieces were performed outdoors – ‘Strange and Sacred Noise’ and ‘songbirdsongs’. In this last the performance was in a smallish area surrounded by trees, the idea being that the local birds would become part of the performance – and they obliged. But the audience was silent, partly because we were listening for birds and partly because of the more confined space; it was more like a concert hall without walls than an outdoor event.

    I think audiences tend to adapt to the venue better than the other way around. I have been disappointed by amplification at a Philip Glass concert at the Hollywood Bowl and a Steve Reich concert at Disney Hall. The best experience – not surprisingly – seems to come when the venue is matched to the piece.

    Reply

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