Acoustics that enhance music, on its journey to the listener
There I was, sitting in the Konzerthaus in Berlin last Monday, as the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) gave a concert in celebration of the Irish presidency of the Council of the European Union. The ICO’s principal guest conductor Jörg Widmann was in charge (multi-tasking as clarinettist and composer as well as conductor), and the evening’s other soloist was soprano Ailish Tynan. But it was the Czech guitarist Vladimir Mikulka who came into my head while I was listening.
It’s more than 10 years since I heard Mikulka play, and although hearing him perform is quite an experience, what brought him to mind was a remark he made when I interviewed him for this newspaper. We met up at the Wexford Festival, where he was due to give a recital in the old White’s Hotel, and the conversation came on to acoustics. The remark that etched itself in my memory was his assertion that for a performer the acoustic is 50 per cent of the instrument.
The Berlin hall was built in 1821 as a theatre, the Königliches Schauspielhaus, to replace a previous theatre that had been destroyed by fire. Goethe provided words for its opening in May 1821, and within a month it had mounted the première of Weber’s Der Freischütz, guaranteeing itself a cherished place in the history of music. As the Preußisches Staatstheater it hosted its last play in July 1944 (Schiller’s Die Räuber) and its last concert in April 1945, before being destroyed by Allied bombs.
It’s located in what used to be Russian-controlled East Berlin, and was rebuilt, this time as a concert hall, between 1979 and 1984. It was there on Christmas Day 1989 (when it was still called the Schauspielhaus) that Leonard Bernstein conducted players from orchestras in Munich, Dresden, Leningrad, London, New York and Paris in Beethoven’s Choral Symphony to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall, and changed the text of the finale, substituting the word Freiheit (Freedom) for the original Freude (Joy). It was given its current name in 1994.
It was the acoustic that had me thinking of Mikulka. Where I was sitting in one of the side boxes, the sound had immediacy, warmth, fullness, and bloom. The sound of voice and instruments lingered in the air as a kind of perfectly-proportioned halo. Unlike the lingering sounds of a typical cathedral, this halo was never obstructive. I can only imagine that, for a performer, it’s like a protection (no sound is going to die an early death) and an invitation (whatever you do will not just carry, it will be enhanced on its journey to the listener).
The programme was an ICO special, musically a weird mixum-gatherum, but often delivered with thrilling thrust. What is it, I wonder, that has the ICO so besotted with arrangements? On this occasion, Ailish Tynan, who marries seductiveness of tone with high musical intelligence better than any other Irish singer I can think of, was lumbered with over-elaborate arrangements of Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (orchestration by Jürgen Hinz) and The Last Rose of Summer (Thomas Moore, via 19th-century Limerick composer George Osborne and the ICO’s own Kenneth Rice).
Composers Elaine Agnew (Strings Astray) and Jörg Widmann (180 Beats Per Minute) must surely have been delighted with the fervency and point with which their post-minimalist pieces were delivered. Mendelssohn’s rarely-heard First Symphony had an explosive energy, even with the peculiarly cramped dynamics that Widmann mostly chose to explore – there were times when he managed to emulate the effects of electronic limiting. At the other end of the scale, when he allowed things to relax, there was always a special magic.