An Enlightened Concert Experience

By: Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

About a month ago, I attended a panel discussion at Chamber Music America’s 35th annual conference in New York during which one of the panelists, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, spoke of her quest to make her concerts as personal, intimate and warm as possible. Reinforced by the atmosphere at a Leonard Cohen performance at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn (seating capacity of approximately 18,000), which made her feel as though she were in his living room, she has set out to experiment with special lighting to warm up the feel of her concerts. Where possible, presenters may be asked to use special gels that may complement a motif in her concert attire. Alternatively, she may ask for a lamp with a lamp shade near the piano, as well as a piece of carpeting under the piano. In some instances, Ms. Dinnerstein has prepared a mixed tape to be played in the hall from the time the doors open, that is related to the program she will perform and that is designed to help the audience put their cares behind them and to welcome them into the concert experience even before she plays a note. Such a compilation might include selections as diverse as songs sung by Joni Mitchell and the late countertenor, Alfred Deller. In a program called “Night”, based on her soon to be released album by that name with singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, the two came out and started performing on a dark stage. As the lights gradually came up, the audience was already engrossed in what they were hearing, spared the applause that traditionally accompanies the artists’ coming out on stage and that can be a rather harsh entry point into a captivating musical experience.

A darkened stage is not a unique or new phenomenon in the concert hall. CMA panelist Eric Edberg, artistic director of the Greencastle Sumer Music Festival, related how he presented Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time on a dark stage with only stand lights. Conductor Paul Haas, founder and visionary Artistic Director of Sympho (which was launched with a revelatory and highly acclaimed multi-media concert in 2006 called “Rewind”) will present a concert at the Church of the Ascension in New York this May with the title “Ascending Darkness”. The following description appears on Sympho’s website: “In this concert, Sympho will explore what happens to the orchestral concert experience when the lights go out, when the audience is invited to listen to the music without visual distractions, allowing the sense of hearing to be heightened. World premieres and pre-composed classics collide in varying degrees of light and darkness in the resonant space of Manhattan’s famed Church of the Ascension. Musicians are placed in unexpected configurations and locations, enveloping the audience in various musical textures. No programs to fumble with or tall concertgoers to peek around. Instead, this concert invites you to sit and focus on what you came to hear in the first place: glorious music.” Like Simone Dinnerstein, Mr. Haas is not exploring new forms of concert presentation because he thinks the music doesn’t stand convincingly on its own. Rather, he feels the concert experience for audience members can be significantly enhanced if they can immerse themselves in the music in as complete a way as possible.

A presenter who has come to many of the same conclusions is Laura Kaminsky, Artistic Director of New York’s Symphony Space. She spoke to me of the acoustical challenge of presenting chamber music and jazz in their smaller theatre, the Thalia, which was built as a screening house and has a low ceiling. The acoustics in the hall are much brighter when the screen is lowered and she thought to create visual backdrops for the music on stage by using lighting, gobos and gels to match the mood of the music being performed. Colors and images are chosen to illuminate and enhance the audience’s musical experience. During a recent contemporary music marathon, the lighting changed throughout the eight hour period, which they felt helped to give each piece its own special world and kept the audience alert and engaged.  In the annual Wall to Wall marathons which take place in the larger 800-seat theatre and which run for twelve continuous hours, she and her staff have created special tableaux that are projected to coordinate with what is happening on stage and that illustrate the changing theme of the Wall to Wall each year. They also feel strongly about setting the tone of a performance from the moment the audience enters the hall, both through lighting and music that create a suitable atmosphere and relate to the program that the audience is about to hear. Ms. Kaminsky elaborated on this to me, as follows: “When you go to a restaurant, you’re going for the culinary experience , but part of what makes it special is the lighting, the ambience, and perhaps the beautifully set table. You don’t go to simply fortify your body with calories. Similarly, a concert is a sensory, aesthetic and cultural experience which should be enjoyed to the fullest.”

While I still regularly attend concerts and feel uplifted by a stimulating program beautifully performed, without the benefit of special lighting or any other unusual sensory stimulation, I am excited at the thought that colleagues whom I hold in high regard are exploring new ways to make audience members feel more comfortable, engaged and connected to what they are hearing and seeing on stage. This can only be a positive development as we continue our efforts to introduce new, younger audiences to centuries of great musical masterpieces.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2013

Comments are closed.