During my pre-concert talks before performances last month of works by Beethoven, Sibelius and Dvorak, I asked all four audiences to raise their hands if this was their first experience listening to the Hartford Symphony perform in the Belding. I was astonished at the response -- all four pre-concert audiences (by my unofficial tally from the stage) was clearly over 50%, maybe even closer to 3 out of every 4 people.
So, for most of our audiences last month, hearing the Hartford Symphony perform in the Belding was a first time experience. And, predictably, most were wowed by the sonic difference. Mortensen Hall is a very large space, nearly 3,000 seats, and orchestras generally sound better in smaller venues. (It isn't the only criterion, but it's a good one.) Belding has anywhere from 800-900 seats, depending on what's going on that night.
When I did my first concerts with the orchestra several years ago, I did not like the Belding at all, but that was my impression from the stage. Now when we perform in the Belding, the sound on stage is much better.
Why the difference?
A few days ago, the HSO's Technical Director, Ken Trestman, gave me my first tour of the backstage area of the Belding. (I know, I know: I should have asked for this years ago. Mea culpa.) I was shown areas not privvy to you from your seat -- up high and beyond public view. When I asked Ken about the acoustical variable, I got my answer. Now, when the orchestra performs, these long, electronically-driven flaps (think long 'shades') are completely drawn, allowing for a much more vibrant, reverberant sound from the orchestra. I'm convinced that these 'shades' were only partly drawn in earlier years, which would explain why the sound was so dead to my ears. When the Belding is used for, say, a stand-up comedian, who necessarily needs amplification, the shades would come down, to deaden the space. The more acoustically 'dead' a space is, the better it is for amplified sound.
And all these years, I had thought a major reason for the sound difference was due to the different stages in the Belding and Mortensen halls. This is a factor, to be sure, but only partly.
Performing Dvorak's Seventh Symphony in November, it was evident to me how much the orchestra members were enjoying their collective sound.
What's your instrument? Piano? Flute? or do you sing?
For orchestras, our instrument is the space in which we play. And the better the venue is acoustically, the more musically rewarding the experience is for you.