31 March 2012

Fickle Acoustics

One of the most frequently asked questions on the "Ask Dr Marc" column on the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra website was, "Where's the best place to sit in the hall to hear the orchestra?".  The answer was simple; and having sat, literally, in every single seat (except the royal box) in Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, I was well positioned to know.  Every seat was good, rows X-Z in the stalls suffered from a certain damping of sound due to balcony overhang, and the boxes along the side really suffered the same problem.  In rows A-G in the stalls you could not see very much, while the circles gave stupendous views.  My favourite seat was W22 in the stalls where the sound was good, the view good and the exit handy (I suffer a slight claustrophobia in concert halls, fearful always that the performance might be so awful I need to make a run for the exit).

Such a situation does not exist in Singapore's Esplanade concert hall, and those frequent comments about its "world-class acoustics" strike me as excessively optimistic.  It can sound fantastic, but it is by no means certain, and I've been to concerts where the sound is plain obstructive to the music.  Reviewing a concert there by a visiting orchestra from China, I commented in the Straits Times about certain problems with the hall acoustics, and was met with a great deal of opprobrium from the Esplanade management.  The Director, I was told on several occasions, "was concerned about your comments and would like you to explain them more fully".  What was there to explain beyond the fact that the hall made the orchestra sound muddy and indistinct?  If he was that unnerved by criticism and needed somebody's head to roll, I could offer up no one sacrificial employee; the problem was down to the setting of the acoustic variables, done by the hall staff in conjunction with the orchestra.  I had no doubt that had the orchestra spent more time and become more used to the hall, they would have got the setting right – but these sorts of issues are an inevitable consequence of variable acoustic settings and, if there is a fault it lies in the design, not the people.  Nevertheless, I have detected a considerable amount of hostility from the Esplanade authorities since then and I note that they no longer invite me to write their programme notes.  It's nice to know that the "shoot the messenger, not the message", is still alive in one area of Singapore life.

I was all set to do a review of last night's concert with the SSO at the Esplanade.  It was the legendary Rozhdestvensky in a tantalizing all-Russian programme, and while I had no great hopes for Jan Vogler's account of the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto (I'd heard his recording and come away unimpressed) I was dying to hear the SSO in the Prokofiev Scythian Suite, not least because they had called in the matchless Paul Philbert to do the business on the timpani; and in a work like that, with the Phantastic Philbert Phlailing around, it was almost guaranteed to be Red Hot.

As it was, however, I felt ill-equipped to offer any kind of objective view, simply because the acoustics of the Esplanade completely obscured my aural perception of the concert.  I experienced something I had not experienced before in the hall; an almost total blind spot where the sound was so diffused as to be incoherent.  Gone now, surely, is any chance of ever doing anything for the Esplanade again!  Ah well!  Truth matters more than financial gain (and how un-Singaporean is that!).

It all began very well.  My appointed seat in the circle – BB32 – gave me a stunning view and an absolutely crystal clear, crisp and perfectly proportioned aural experience.  Just as well, for Glazunov's Les Ruses d'Amour was a work I had only ever heard on a less-than-wonderful Naxos CD, and was dying to hear it live.  Full of glorious orchestral colour and some moments of pure aural magic, Rozhdestvensky got every last drop of joy from this wonderfully life-affirming score, and while it warred me slightly that I never really heard the celesta in the delightful Danse des marionettes everything else slotted nicely into place to make it, as Chang Tou Liang put it to me during the interval, "An hour well spent".

Unfortunately, after the interval, I moved seat to be near a colleague, and found myself almost bang in the centre of the circle (if you know what I mean) - BB41, I think it was.  What had been clear and vivid was now a dismembered mesh, with Vogler's cello coming at me from left and right depending on which way he was facing, and a peculiar sensation of everything else coming down from on high rather than up from the stage.  In the Esplanade the major acoustic variables are at the top of the auditorium (in DFP they are around the sides, behind the audience) and I have previously noticed a tendency for the sound to head straight up and wallow around a bit at altitude before scattering itself on the heads of the audience below.  But from this seat (and I blame the seat, not the acoustic setting – with the SSO they invariably get that right) I really could not offer an opinion on the quality of the music making in the Cello Concerto, because the quality of the sound was so obstructive.  (The only observation I feel justified in making on Vogler's playing was that in his utterly inappropriate and, to may way of thinking, unwarranted encore, he presented such a stylized and clich├ęd Bach movement, that I am not tempted to seek out the recording of the unaccompanied Bach Suites promised in his biography printed in the programme book.)

As for the Prokofiev, with a veritable battery of percussion (10 of them lined up along the back like some Red Army Firing Squad) and the SSO brass clearly relishing every moment of this utterly fantastic and riveting score, it should have been a great experience.  Clearly Rozhdestvensky had the work off to a tee, and squeezed every last drop of drama and excitement from it.  But, from BB41, I heard the glorious strings as vague halo around the hall, the woodwind focused like pinpricks of tracer fire seen at night, and a weird mesh of enfeebled noise coming from the back rows.  In short, I lost the brass and percussion almost wholly.  I never once heard the bass drum, and while Philbert was clearly strutting his stuff like a magnificent peacock, from where I was it lacked any real impact.  The celesta, on the other hand, sounded as if she was sitting in my lap, so close did the sound appear, while the piano next to her on stage, but nearer the back of the platform, sounded as if he was playing somewhere over the other side of the Merlion.

Concert halls are notoriously fickle in their acoustics, and DFP is indeed rare in giving first-rate sound to the vast majority of its seats.  The Esplanade has some pretty impressive acoustic qualities, but it's well worth being careful over the choice of seat.  I'd go for BB32 any time – but I'll avoid BB41 like  the plague.  What a remarkable difference nine seats along a row makes.


  1. Dear Dr Marc, there are other absolutely horrible seats in the hall.
    The middle of rows FF and GG in the Foyer stalls result in the most horrendous acoustics I had ever encountered in the world - only the First violins, second trombone, oboes and timpani could be heard clearly in a performance of Dvorak's 7th Symphony.
    The rest of the instruments merged together in a most horrendous, glutinous mess of sound. Do advise your friends to stay very far from those seats too.

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  3. I'm a cellist and am going to see a cello concerto in Esplanade soon. I can either buy tickets for either row C or EE, both slightly to the left. Which would be a better choice if I'm equally interested in both looking at the soloist and appreciating the music?

    1. Row C is terribly far forward but you'd get a good view and a good sound, while Row EE can be fantastic provided you are well to the left - simply avoid the middle few seats

  4. oh no. i choose circle 2 AA16 and also J19 for upcoming concerts. :(

  5. From George Bernard Shaw, writing his review of a concert in London's St James's Hall on 25th January 1889. Commenting that he could not hear because of his seat he wrote in The Star; "I hereby solemnly warn Mr Vert and the musical profession in general that if they ever again send me a ticket numbered AA15 I shall destroy it as I would a mad dog".

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