Acoustic Thoughts While Hearing Brendel Play
Julia and I found ourselves in fourth row orchestra seats on the keyboard side, no more than 20 feet from the performers. The all-Beethoven program opened with the Fifth Symphony, a work which has survived its association with the V-for-victory slogan of World War II (the rhythm of the opening theme is the same as that of the Morse Code letter "V"), and has even continued to be heard in its original form despite the success of Walter Murphy's 1976 disco adaptation "A Fifth Of Beethoven" and a similarly mechanistic treatment in "Hooked On Classics." It is difficult to be convincing when presenting an overly familiar piece, but Mr. Schwarz conducted a dramatic performance.
During the intermission, Mr. Brendel's Steinway was moved center stage. When the orchestra was again in place, the artist himself appeared, took his seat, and, after a moment's eye contact with Mr. Schwarz, began the solo opening phrase of the "Fourth Concerto." At the time this concerto was written, it was normal for the orchestra to state the entire exposition of the first-movement themes before the solo instrument made its entrance, but Beethoven's remarkable game plan has the piano begin the movement by itself, proposing a relatively brief theme to which the orchestra responds at surprising length. During this response, Brendel adjusted his seat and sat poised patiently. (From my own more commercial background a fantasy floated through my mind: The soloist, trapped in overtime on another gig, arrives onstage in a panic several minutes late and sneaks onto his seat hoping that no one has noticed his arrival. In this concerto he would have missed only the short piano intro, and the conductor, equally panicked, might have begun without him....I guiltily put aside such speculation to concentrate on the performance.)
The piano re-entered, and a dialogue between soloist and orchestra built a symbiosis in which the orchestra might at one moment support the soloist, at another go its own way, at still another subside altogether while the piano played unaccompanied. Brendel was a marvel of expressivity and clarity. Every tone, every phrase was exactly right in relation to the whole. In the first movement Beethoven used sonata form like a wordless novel.
The listener was introduced to a protagonist and a host of secondary characters and allowed to follow them through plot complications, conflict, reconciliation, and denouement, all in the abstract.
In the slow second movement there was a moment which made me feel as if I were watching an incredible trapeze artist, worried that he might plunge to the ground. Brendel had neared the end of a sensitive phrase during which each tone had become softer than the last in coordination with a graceful ritardando. At the next to last note, one feared that he could not possibly settle on the final one with the ultimate delicacy demanded by the line. He sustained the penultimate note until it had all but died away, then concluded at last with a tone even softer. In the row ahead of me, my neighbor turned to his companion and smiled in marveling awe.
While one side of my brain followed Beethoven's inexorable logic and Brendel's exquisite playing, the other side was entertaining quite different thoughts. I myself have been on the august stage of Carnegie Hall a fair number of times, and have wondered on each occasion whether we ought to be performing with natural sound, as at this concert, taking advantage of the hall's magnificent acoustics. Pragmatically, however, in every situation I can recall we have used some form of audio amplification.
This is not to say that I cannot imagine an acoustic jazz concert at Carnegie. Solo piano obviously works fine. The trouble begins when bass is added. An unamplified bass simply doesn't project satisfactorily, at least not with the presence to which we have grown accustomed. The acoustic problem grows worse when we add the drum set.
Even if the drummer limits himself to playing with brushes on the snare and cymbals, this tends to distract from the sound of the piano, and as soon as our man picks up his sticks, the game is up. At that point one is forced to acknowledge that, as far as the role of the acoustic piano is concerned, a jazz combo is inherently unbalanced in volume; a jazz band of any size is even worse.
Amplification leads to more amplification. From the point of view of the bass player, it is understandable for him to want to keep turning the knob to the right. Not only does his tone gain in presence, his agility is greater since he can play with less force. Having turned up, however, he is liable to be carried away by the excitement of the song and may well play just as hard as he would have at the lower volume setting. The raised level of the bass, in turn, requires that the drummer play louder. There is no way that the poor pianist can match the pair acoustically except by playing more forcefully than he ought to, which may lead to a hard tone and less than facile technique. Even then, he will probably be overwhelmed. Add an electric guitar to the group, and it is easy to see how tempting it is for the pianist to switch to an electric keyboard altogether.
The answer, and it is not a perfect one, is to convince the bass player that we know he is there, even if we do not hear the tramping of dinosaurs, to beg the drummer to percuss in a more moderate fashion, and to apply a microphone to the piano. The piano mike does not have to be very loud, merely sufficient for the player to hear himself while others are playing.
Our acoustic problem is also related to the requirements of singers. Since pop-jazz singers do not project in the manner of opera singers, they must be amplified. Pop singing since Bing Crosby has depended on the use of the microphone, and an entire idiom has come about because of the discovery in the '20s of microphone technique. This is well and good, but the corollary is that the accompanying instruments, at least the piano, must also be amplified to match the voice.
Stage monitor speakers, in my opinion, are a cure for acoustical problems which is worse than the disease. While their ostensible function is to keep scattered sections of the orchestra in touch with one another, my experience is that they often add to the general muddle of sound, so that the players get progressively louder in an effort to project their individual parts. I certainly didn't see any monitors onstage during the Beethoven concert, and there were 40-odd musicians up there, frequently all playing at the same time---and very nicely, too. A full-sized symphony orchestra, which the Y Chamber Symphony is not, may consist of up to 100 people, none of them screaming to stagehands to get them a monitor.
One more point needs to be made: Pianists like Alfred Brendel are trained to play with a full dynamic range, from very soft to very loud. Jazz pianists generally play within a more circumscribed range. When Brendel plays softly, however, it is not necessarily the pianissimo the audience assumes it to be. He is able to play tenderly and delicately and still cause his sound to sing out. Many of us, on the other hand, have come to depend lamely on amplification and have not thought enough about projection.
On the positive side, a new idiom has been created with an esthetic based on the technology of amplified sound. Without even thinking about synthesizers, we should consider the variety of guitar styles, the enriched possibilities of tone control and agility for brass instruments played directly into a microphone, the use of an amplified flute, the dazzling technique of amplified bass players. My plea, therefore, is not to do away with all amplification. Rather, it is to use it only as needed for balance in halls such as Carnegie. And perhaps, for chamber jazz, we might attempt now and then to get by with none at all, everyone playing more softly than usual.
From Dick Hyman: Piano Pro © 1992 Ekay Music Inc. Reproduced with permission of the author.