The sound reasons why orchestras have avoided the Round Room

The Irish Chamber Orchestra has moved to the Mansion House’s Round Room, and there are challenges to overcome

Soprano Ailish Tynan: at her beguiling best

Soprano Ailish Tynan: at her beguiling best

 

The Irish Chamber Orchestra has uprooted itself, taking its Dublin concerts from the RDS to the Round Room of the Mansion House.

It is no exaggeration to say that the orchestra has a long-standing Dublin problem, a lot of which boils down to the fact that Dublin has a venue problem. The capital city still has no small or medium-sized concert hall for classical music.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra as we now know it came in to being in 1995, when it moved base from the capital to Limerick. Back then its favoured Dublin spot was the O’Reilly Hall in DCU. The orchestra then tried the National Concert Hall before settling on Sunday afternoon concerts at Imma, when Nicholas McGegan was the principal conductor.

The Great Hall at Imma may not be acoustically ideal but the placing of the orchestra against one of the side walls mitigated the problems. The orchestra built up a steady following and the atmosphere surrounding the Imma concerts always seemed apt.

The arrival of Anthony Marwood saw a return to the NCH, but no consideration seemed to be given to the kind of repertoire that would work best in that larger space, let alone attract sufficient numbers to fill it. The programmes were crammed with pointless arrangements, and the eventual solution was to cut and run.

The new destination was the RDS, which made improvements to its hall by covering over the bookcases on the side walls and providing a new platform, with reflecting panels above it. The sound remained dry and boxy, although it became fuller as a result of the changes.

The orchestra has performed in a range of other Dublin venues over the years: Larkin Theatre, the Hub and Mahony Hall at DCU; TCD Chapel; the National Gallery; St Patrick’s Cathedral; the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre; Farmleigh House and Monkstown Parish Church. But it has never settled in anywhere as well as it did in the years at Imma.

The first of the new Round Room concerts took place on Wednesday. The room is a hall steeped in history. It was built for the visit of George IV in 1821 and was used for the meeting of the first Dáil in January 1919. It played an important role in the development of public concerts by the Irish Radio Orchestra (precursor of today’s RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra) during the second World War.

The radio orchestra’s activities, once confined to a cramped studio in the GPO, were moved to Scots Church hall on Lower Abbey Street and then to the Round Room. The orchestra’s first concert there, in October 1941, included the Irish premiere of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, then just seven years old, with Charles Lynch as soloist. The venue proved too small to accommodate demand for tickets, and the concerts were moved to the Capitol Theatre on Prince’s Street with nearly three times the seating capacity.

The Round Room has not seen much in the way of orchestral activity for decades. East Berlin’s Berlin Chamber Orchestra played a concert there in 1982, and the Irish Chamber Orchestra itself played there under French trumpeter André Bernard in 1994.

Reviewing the first concert, Charles Acton remarked: “It is very many years indeed since I was last at a proper concert there.” Although he found the acoustics “less impossible than they used to be”, he concluded that the venue “still seems to be about as undesirable as one could find”.

Douglas Sealy’s complaints about the acoustics in 1994 were milder. He thought that in music by Mozart “the lower parts sounded a little blurred in the ambience of the Round Room and the music was less clear than it should have been”.

A very tight fit

The venue has been much altered since then. On Wednesday it looked like a round version of a black box theatre, but with seating that would make what airlines provide seem ample and comfortable. The high-tech changes have turned it into one of those places in which there is nothing approaching real silence. The whir of fans is loud enough to intrude on the softest passages of music- making.

The sound itself remains pretty dire. I sat near the front for the first half, and found the effect lacking in focus and balance, with touches of roughness suggesting that the players might not be hearing each other clearly, and, as a result, forcing their tone in the pursuit of more sound. I sat at the back for the second half, where the overall effect was rather better. But the tonal balance was still askew, as if the sound had been re-equalised with a monster boost for the bass frequencies.

It is true that the ear can successfully adjust to a large range of acoustics that on first acquaintance seem unviable. It is like entering a darkened room in which the outlines and details of objects become clear after your eyes adapt. Wednesday’s experience requires a different visual analogy, however. It was like trying to watch a movie in a distorting mirror, where the proportions are so out of kilter that the original images are almost impossible to imagine.

The programme itself was rock-solid: sacred settings of Pergolesi, Mozart and Schubert, two movements from Haydn’s Seven Last Words, and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet arranged for strings. Soprano Ailish Tynan seemed at her beguiling best, and conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy approached the music with vitality and imagination.

Still, it was impossible to ward off the warping lens of the acoustic.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com
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