Musical chairs: where’s the best place to sit at a concert?

It’s an impossible question: sitting in different parts of a music hall can alter the experience significantly

Wed, Mar 26, 2014, 01:00

On one level it was all excruciating, but on another it was almost revelatory. It was as if the music were coming to me partly disassembled and the only way I could relate to it was by grabbing its various strands and continually trying to line them up properly in my head, moment by moment. The word “active” hardly describes the concentration of listening that was involved. And my sense of engagement with the music was exceptional, as if I were somehow in the middle of Elgar’s creation and having to hold it all together myself.

A seat with Bach support
The seat I was allocated for the Guinness Choir’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin on Saturday had a somewhat similar effect. I couldn’t have been placed farther forward. The conductor, David Milne, was on my right; most of the soloists just two rows in front; the viola da gamba player, Nicholas Milne, was within an arm’s reach – he was so close that I hardly dared move my head to look at him as he wove through his difficult solos for fear of disturbing him. Musically speaking, I was too close for comfort, too.

Music written for large forces – the St Matthew Passion has two orchestras and two choirs – needs time to settle and blend in the air before reaching the listeners’ ears. As with most of the standard orchestral repertoire, it is like a dish that needs to be set aside for the flavours to mingle. Put it on your plate too soon and everything is still separate.

For me, that sense of separation was pronounced in the Bach, with lots of what you might call choir lag from the massed voices in the distance, the close-by organ continuo always immediate, and the solo voices in spectacularly sharp focus. I was aware that it wasn’t by any means the best of Matthew Passions that I’ve heard, but I did enjoy the gorgeous woodwind-playing, being in such close contact with the impassioned solidity of the mezzo soprano Maria de Moel and the formal reserve of bass James Harrison’s Jesus.

Reserve and formality also marked Thursday’s National Concert Hall Rising Star recital by pianist Nadene Fiorentini, who two years ago was the highest-placed Irish competitor in the Dublin International Piano Competition.

Her programme was mainstream and compact – Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, the six rich piano pieces of Brahms’s Op 118, and Chopin’s Sonata in B minor – and the sense of command was far greater than in her round-two performances at the competition in 2012.

The playing was carefully sculpted, soberly thought-out, and the musical intentions were always clear. What was lacking was a sense of discourse or narrative flow. The style of delivery conveyed an impression of distance between performer and music, as if an essential stage of engagement had been lost in the process of making sure that everything was coming out right.

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