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Positive Feedback ISSUE 20


From Clark Johnsen's Diaries: Adventures in the Halls of Music
by Clark Johnsen 

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[Note: The following three reports were filed over the course of ten years, and appear here for the first time on-line. Dates and perspectives have not been changed. But one thing now is different: James Levine, not Seiji Ozawa, heads the Boston Symphony and things are ever so much better in this town.]


This evening found me in attendance at the Boston Symphony for the first time in nearly two years. The current cost of my favorite first balcony, second row, left side seat accounts perhaps for my absence: $62.50. (On the floor they go for up to $94.50!) The star attraction tonight was pianist extraordinaire Krystian Zimerman, himself an electronics hobbyist and audio cognoscente.

[From a Boston Globe interview: Zimerman is fascinated by recordings, collects them, holds strong opinions about them. He is very much against cleaning up the sonics on 78s, for instance. "Fritz Kreisler and Alfred Cortot were experienced musicians who knew the limitations of the technology and who adjusted their playing accordingly. They played for the medium." One of the exercises Zimerman has devised for his students is studying the "same" performance of a Chopin Mazurka by Artur Rubinstein on the original 78, on an LP transfer and on CD... Zimerman has come to believe that modern recording in particular is "destructive to what music is about... So often, electronics are against us instead of working for us."

Zimerman was to play Brahms' First Concerto. We knew something special was up from the way he so keenly regarded the other players during the long orchestral introduction, guided by the skilled hand of Simon Rattle. And we were not to be disappointed: At the end of the first forceful solo outburst, Krystian arose spectrally over the keyboard, Jerry-Lee-Lewis-like, as he and Sir Simon rattled my brain! Here was real, passionate Brahms on display, no exit available.

[Clark is referring here to the placard that some wag once hung, so the story goes, under the new electric "Exit" signs in Symphony Hall: "In case of Brahms." Nowadays right next to it is a mounted container holding a box of matches, clearly inscribed: "In case of Glass, make fire".... / Ed.]

After intermission the band gave us Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, the only piece known to me where the composer consciously created a "soundstage": Strings are split into left and right ranks, with the violins further divided in two on each side, percussion and celeste residing dead center. The first movement fugal entrances, twelve in all and encompassing the entire circle of fifths, occur at different spots on stage, helping delineate the complex structure. In another movement the melodies glide beguilingly around the orchestra. In this spatial realm, and in all others, this was a bravura performance. Bravissimo!! The BSO!! And a stereo spectacular!

But there was more, what I call the "second stereo" of Symphony Hall. Sitting on the side, fifteen feet up from the floor, one can almost see the bass-percussion wavefronts rushing by, before hearing their ultimate slam against the back wall to become what's known as reverberation. That sonic phenomenon makes this location my favorite seat in the house, perhaps in the whole world.

Still more: Today was Election Day. Every similar November night I devise a strategy to avoid radio and TV. Not to say I'm untempted, but why should any sane person wish to go to sleep on the certain knowledge that some horrid, amiable rogue has just been elected President, Senator, Congressman? Shouldn't this stuff wait until morning? We have become a world desensitized to horror, precisely by going to bed with it fresh on our minds every night. Can anyone imagine the civilized Greeks, for example, living that way? Grim enough, Euripedes at the theatre! Aren't the headlines on our doorstep each morning, sufficient? At least then we have a pot of coffee ready and the whole day to help us face up. But sleeping on bad news? No, thanks. I'll attend a concert, write a few remarks afterwards, then head beddy-bye. Dream sweet dreams. Wake up to the world situation later: WAR DECLARED! 900 POISONED! BEATLE ASSASSINATED! IDIOT REELECTED!

Don't you agree, my way is better? Listen only to music, after dark.


Tonight I am home from Jordan Hall where the Boston Philharmonic, a semi-professional orchestra, and its acclaimed conductor Ben Zander gave us Schubert's Eighth and Bruckner's Ninth—to anyone in the know, an obvious although not common pairing. While separated in composition by sixty years, these two pieces share certain melodic affinities and similarly place the listener on unsteady tonal ground, Schubert as usual being a man ahead of his time. Plus, both symphonies were left unfinished!

The highly informative program notes made me glad I got there early for a change. Michael Steinberg, along with John Burk surely the greatest program annotator ever, offered the charming observa­tion that Schubert was "simply at a loss" how to follow-up such a radical beginning, so he shelved the project until later. Bruckner, on the other hand, did indeed die on the spot—and one-hundred years previously, to this day, today! Lordy! Now that's what I call compelling programming.

The present writer, well acquainted with the historical literature on 78s and broadcast tapes, holds the firm opinion that few new recordings measure up. Live performances, however, still create the energy that makes music great. Tonight's concert worked just that way. For those unacquainted with Boston's symphonic scene, Philharmonic concerts are generally more rewarding than those given by the Boston Symphony, although less frequent by far; and, warts and all, the sound was, well, live.

Yes, the sound... Jordan Hall, just down the block from Symphony Hall, was expensively refurbished last year. The results, while visually resplendent, are not thought altogether satisfactory acoustically. With all due respect, I must disagree with my PF colleague John Pearsall, who wrote favorably from afar in Volume 6, #4 of Positive Feedback; I believe that John got this one wrong. As a PFer on the scene and familiar with said site en vivo, I think that I can speak with some authority on the subject. In fact, the redeco­rated hall sounds brash and congested, like most of the newly-built ones. I quote from a recent Boston Globe article by Richard Buell:

"The Jordan Hall acoustics again. Sunday night's victim was Kenneth Radnofsky, whose expert saxophone playing was rendered almost unlistenable—loud, edgy, unrelenting. How much so? Well, your reviewer resorted to latex ear plugs for the final three-quarters. What a good player, but what a hellish experience! No, the place is not mellowing. At its worst these days, the new Jordan Hall is an outright catastrophe. It hates music."

Buell might as well have said, "Sounds digital."

Soon after the re-dedication I attended a piano recital and a chamber concert These were passable, but tonight, both upstairs and down, the band sounded—yes!—digitized. To define the stereotype: I mean edgy, horrible, with a relentless (that word again!), unarticulated mezzo-forte growl whenever the volume went up. Of course that could be the orchestra itself, pushing the loudness ceiling in a smallish hall, and I have warned the conductor about this in the past. Only further hearings will tell.

As a sidelight, these Boston Philharmonic concerts were once the watering hole of local active audio types, owing to conductor Zander's interest in such pursuits and the local Union's tolerance of amateur recordings. Personalities diverse as Peter Mitchell, Micha Schattner, Brad Meyer, Ken Deen, and Dick Burwen were present backstage, and once even Peter McGrath.

And therein lies a story. It was the Mahler Second in Symphony Hall, and at dress rehearsal I definitely knew that here was an occasion! One to be saved in the highest fidelity! So I called local high-end maven/retailer Allen Goodwin and told him to get his recordist buddy Peter McGrath up to Boston pronto with his Levinson gear. And by Saturday afternoon all was nearly in place, as I scurried around acting as genial gofer to the various recordists, none of whom took much notice of my over-qualification other than as a quick pair of legs, which was fine by me. And from my then-regular BSO subscription seats (Second Balcony Left, B14-15) I found myself helping to string a slew of mic cables.

Later I got detailed to procure dinner. A nearby Burger King seemed to be on everyone's mind and so despite my mild protesta­tions away I ran, returning with bags and bags of foul food. Someone had sportingly proposed to subsidize my own engorge­ment, but I took a pass on that. I do still vividly recall the stench backstage as guys eagerly opened the packages from their obedient footservant, and my amazement that anything good could come from this greasy pre-concert intake. Poor Peter Mitchell, not expected to live for long, everyone knew, due to his dangerously overweight condition and medical complications, downed three or four Whoppers. I was appalled at my own role in his imminent demise, but that was in 1982, so I guess the joke was on me—Peter lasted a long time.

The concert went beautifully. Next day saw an informal gathering of the Boston Audio Society at The Listening Studio to audition the various tapes. Notably absent among these was the noble McGrath effort I had instigated, owing (I thought then) to Allen Goodwin's professional jealousy. Notably present, however, was mid-fi magazine luminary Dave Ranada and his DIGITAL RECORDER: A Sony PCM-F1, on loan from L.A., first one ever seen on the East Coast, very special, etc. etc. So here it was! My first exposure! ... Everyone's!... to digital direct.

Well, damn! It blew my ribbon tweeters! Didn't sound so good either, I thought, but High Fidelity, later Stereo Review honcho Ranada disparaged my equipment, endlessly intoning the phrase "not digital ready" and otherwise making himself pleasant. Myself, I blamed the horrid treble shrillness and obvious enharmonic digital artifacts, probably equally pleasantly.

At any rate our Mahler Second Playback Session was partially derailed by this revoltin' development and I made an enemy for life, as I have with many stalwart members of the BAS, who in their present undeviating devotion to computerized audio suck, in my opinion, dry twigs.

Anyway, those were the days, backstage, for really involved audio types, and even more of us would be in the audi­ence. Now those days are gone, and rather than a dozen Revoxes, one finds a couple DATs; rather than a forest of suspended micro­phones, a group of four spaced-omnis with numerous spot mics and in the center and an M/S pair or two. This once-wondrous audio scene has been vacated; one no longer meets one's associates and competitors in the corridors. Peter Mitchell has died, God rest his soul, but that's no excuse! I still go! Where's everyone else? What's to happen next?

Unfinished, the hall.

Unfinished, the music.

Unfinished, the audio art.

The dancers are home from the hills.

III. HELP! As a Child I Was Abdebusseyed and Mahlered!

Earlier I wrote of an exceptional peak experience: recording and attending the Mahler Second in Symphony Hall. This afternoon, fifteen years later, I am sitting near my original seat for another go-round with the same orchestra and conductor, the Boston Philharmonic under Ben Zander, whose three CDs have done very well. For nearly ten years I had deliberately boycotted this mammoth work, having (I decided) grown rather too fond of it, as a romantic young man in his Mahler Years will. Now, I am happy to report, the Second has become for me just another symphony, and my feelings are not psychologically engaged. In other words, at last I can listen to it for its self, and not for my self.

But that had not been the case back in 1982, I recall. Like anyone hooked, I even chased my favorite Mahler band around the country, in one instance to Carnegie Hall. Eight tickets I purchased for the parquet, row S, with the intention of treating audio acquain­tances in the area to real Mahler. Two got sent unsolicited to Harry Pearson, but the others found no takers apart from a pair I sold in the lobby. What use do sophisticated New Yorkers have for out-of-town Mahler anyway?

No one came to the party except Victor Campos, who only moved down at intermission, spying a better space below. And he never said a word to me. It was quite the luxury, however, to stretch my arms way out on either side.

The performance was glorious. Ditto the sound.

Which recalls two earlier but far more daunting episodes in New York, in Avery Fisher Hall, nee Philharmonic Hall, the intended replacement for Carnegie. The place soon became acoustically infamous, although First Lady Lady Bird was there on opening night to gush over it on TV. Later that season, returning to school from Christmas vacation, I passed through New York solely to hear the Mahler Fifth under Bernstein. I had just learned the symphony that same year from 78s-transfers, one of only three performances available, and this would be my first live occasion. But, Sold Out! So Sam Sanders and I "second-acted"—meaning, gate-crashed. There are always empty seats, Sam explained, and as we prowled the aisles he spotted three, immediately taking one. Slipping into the forth row center to gain my own intended slot, I turned around to find an older gentleman following, glaring at me fiercely and gesticulating towards the location as though it were his own. Oh dear.

Then the lights dimmed and onto the stage strode Leonard Bernstein, no more than fifteen feet away. Mercifully the third spare seat was in the row behind and two places over, but God! Piled with coats! Overcoming my deer-like transfixion, I turned to its neighbors and assumed a boyish, bruised expression. With New York ill grace the wraps were removed and I scrambled over the seat-backs discreetly as possible, just as the applause faded, my heart pounding, scant seconds before the piercing tat-tat-tat-rat of trumpet triplets announced the inexorable Forward March of this joltingly uncon­strained, C-sharp-minor symphonic armada.

It was a memorable concert.

Thus emboldened, next I New-York-second-acted Mahler's Eighth ("Symphony of a Thousand... but for you. Eight Hundred"), managing to enter from the beginning; then, two years later, came Sang of the Earth (featuring "The Drinking Song of World Sorrow," composed well before our dismal anti-alcohol era of planetary consciousness), with world-famed baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Leonard Bernstein again conducted, and that time for sure I thought there would be no seat. Desperately roaming the floor, I espied Boston Globe music critic Michael Steinberg; although he wouldn't recognize me (we had only corresponded), I engaged his professional concertgoer sympathy and got pointed to a possible spot in the left side balcony. I sprinted up and gained the seat.

It was a memorable concert.

Parenthetically... the only major Mahler I've never heard live is the Tenth, a symphony whose radical-at-the-time harmonic procedures endure, horribly cheapened and coarsened, in nearly every film score for the last forty years. And those musically-ignorant cinema Finns don't know what the Huck! But blaming poor Mahler for that unhappy circumstance, as some do, is akin to saddling the greatest American artist, Frank Lloyd Wright, with the ranch-style house.

So, back to the Second Symphony. It represented "the new music" 1895-style, and while most critics detested it, there were also reports of men at the premier sobbing uncontrollably towards the end. Try to get a reaction like that today, with "the new music". We are so above it all, and the music is so forbidding! Although, in defense of humanity I do remember attending the Eighth at Tanglewood, Seiji Ozawa conducting, and many of us were in tears afterwards, including two who had scarcely even heard of Mahler before. So at least we do not simply lack the capacity.

At any rate, my own (infantile, or childlike?) relationship with Mahler's gangly, worldly, ecstatic Second had begun during my freshman year in college, when it appeared atop a series of Boston Symphony "open rehearsals". Thus it also served as my introduction to Symphony Hall. In that era of Charles Munch, composers like Mahler and Bruckner were routinely handed to assistant conductor Richard Burgin, who had only a middling reputation. But what did I know? Snared by the music, I soon appeared at Minute Man Records auditioning available performances in their listening booths. Those were the days!

For anyone interested in audio history: I have the subsequent BSO broadcast on stereo tape. Oddly, because that was 1960! Before the FCC approved SCA multiplexing, two local FM stations carried Saturday night concerts live, each taking a different feed from two spaced omni's. While I never afforded the proper equipment myself, my Mahlerite and soon-to-be-friend Tony Lauck, up at Exeter Academy (where only proctors were supposed to have hi-fi gear), mustered two tuners, appropriate antennas and a modded Viking quarter-track deck. The result: A future-historic audio document of sorts, currently residing chez moi.

On the same theme, I am also the proud owner of a Mahler First "broadcast master" made in 1962 on the premises of Sanders Theatre during the erstwhile Cambridge Series of the Boston Symphony. The conductor was Erich Leinsdorf, the machine was a monaural Ampex 350, the speed was 15ips and the sound is killer! Moreover—what a Mahler Audio Guy I had become!—I have a 1964 stereo tape of the Sixth. Leinsdorf again, made on an Ampex 354 with a signal received over a Scott 310E. This tape never fails to impress, whenever I haul it out, and what a performance! And I was there! A reliable engineer friend pressed the buttons while I sat in Symphony Hall. Thank you again, Dick Dunham.

Earlier that day I had run an antenna up to the sixth floor of Claverly Hall, dropping a long line down to the cellar studios of WHRB, my college radio station. After knocking on the door of the topmost suite, I heard some scurrying around inside, then it was answered by a young male with an even younger lady peering at me from inside. I announced my mission and their relief was palpable. With good-humored (although still incredulous) cooperation they helped me hang my antenna stick outside the bedroom window. Nor were they fazed when I said I might return shortly to re-aim the thing.

Back to the present... Oh, did I neglect to mention, every stage in all those superb-sounding broadcast tapes I own, used tubes and only tubes?... my eye has been on the father/son pair sitting beside me, who are enjoying a healthy, highly humorous relationship. The kid, twelve or thirteen perhaps, dressed in sneakers and baggy T-shirt, yet fully alert to the mostly well-dressed older people around him, is sharing his continuous perceptions with Dad, although remaining quiet during the music.

Now, one of the many advantages of any Zander performance is its meticulous preparation, which gives the musicians ample opportunity to develop individual phrasing. Today the second move­ment, which gently resumes the mission after a five-minute pause following the enormous first movement, has been phrased through­out in a manner never before heard, but it must be right! At the end the youngster turns to his father, grinning, and says, "What a great movement!"

"Yes, son, it was."

The tradition continues!