October 13, 2006

CSO loud, good

Last Saturday night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was both loud enough and good, according to sources who heard the concert. The sound produced by the 104-member orchestra was at a high enough volume that it could be heard by the people sitting in the audience. That sound, which made it all the way from the instruments to the ears of the concert-goers, was also good.

“Wow,” said Penelope Derrida, a fourth-year Visual Arts major attending the CSO for the tenth or eleventh time. “I can finally hear them!”

When asked if she enjoyed the concert, she replied, “Hell yeah! That was fucking great!”

Sources inside the orchestra’s management were at a loss. “We didn’t use any amplification. Those microphones you see hanging above the stage are for recording and archival purposes only—I just don’t get it. How is it possible?”

It was what should have been a perfectly normal night for the CSO. They had programmed relatively standard repertoire pieces, Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. These pieces have always been well regarded and considered energetic, say experts in the field. The Shostakovich, especially, has been characterized as “bombastic” and “frenetic”—but rarely, if ever, has it been loud enough.

Said baritone Matthias Goerne, who sang the Mahler cycle, “I was amazed. I mean, sometimes when I have headphones on I talk too loud, but that was incredible! I’ve done those songs hundreds of times, but that was the first time I really felt like I was connecting, you know, like actually reaching people.”

But the sound at the CSO hasn’t always been this loud or this good. For years there has been growing criticism surrounding “live” performances of classical music. Calls have been made from many quarters for the CSO to “take the cotton out of their cellos and the socks out of their bassoons.” As recently as 2004, the orchestra admitted it was a problem, they just didn’t know how to tackle it.

First they tried hiring older musicians and conductors, hoping their impaired auditory faculties would make them play louder. “It made sense at the time,” said general manager Ron Horkheimer, “but older people get tired more easily, and they simply gave up trying to hear themselves. The plan backfired.”

Instead of addressing the problem directly, the orchestra’s management simply raised ticket prices. This made concerts available only to the stodgiest captains of industry, men who couldn’t have cared less if the music was any good, let alone at a decent volume.

People actually interested in hearing the masterworks of the orchestral genre were forced underground, finding refuge in their recordings and stereos. “You see this?” asked Jim Sloterdijk, audiophile and disenchanted CSO subscriber. “It’s a volume knob, dickhead.”

Saturday night’s performance came as quite a shock to the CSO’s loyal audience base, for whom the weekly concerts were a welcome respite from a world grown far too noisy. For many, the CSO was the last place where they could sit in silence and not have to talk to their spouses or friends.

“What am I supposed to do now?” complained Pirouette Bourdieu, a septuagenarian concert-goer, “I already leave the TV on mute all day long, and now that you can finally hear at the CSO, I just don’t know what’s left.”

What does this all mean for the CSO? They’ve brought in the Branford Marsalis Quartet, hoping to capitalize on this “new” sound. That concert will occur on Friday the 13th, when “anything can happen,” said a gleeful Slavoj Brown, director of production for the orchestra. We’ll also see what happens the following weekend with Mahler’s Third—maybe we’ll hear it. And it could be good, too.