Orchestral Music Review Print



Good Music, Poor Sound

June 14, 2003 - Cary, NC:


William Henry Curry and the North Carolina Symphony cooked up a fine program on American themes, while crowds of picnickers chomped down what they had cooked up on this first Summerfest concert pretty much unthreatened by rain. The increasing crowds at Regency Amphitheater attest to the fact that the NCS summer series is a success - but not an unqualified one. Call us picky, but we're still at odds with the sound system.

Maybe it just doesn't matter. Maybe all folks want is easy listening with a beer in their hand, or filtered through the internal sound of their own chewing. But the fact is that most everyone arrived at least a half hour early and had finished eating so that they could listen attentively to the music. Parents shushed their little kids or scurried them off to the lakeside where they could get rid of their wiggles and feed the waterfowl. Pardon the digression but bravo to the corporate sponsors whose support permits children under 12 to be admitted to these concerts free of charge!

The Amphitheater at Regency Park has received high marks, and rightly so. But the sound system has been a great disappointment from day one. Watching Curry conduct the program of familiar Americana, including Morton Gould's American Salute , Charles Ives's Variations on America, Aaron Copland's Billy the Kid Suite and Antonín Dvorák's Symphony "From the new World," we could tell these were first rate performances, especially the Dvorák. But with all the close miking - there were about two dozen mikes spread throughout the orchestra - you could hear every single string player - separately. Orchestras are all about balance, blend and instrumental highlights. The control of these factors belongs to the conductor, not the sound mixer. In the 1970s and early 80s it became fashionable to record orchestras with dozens of mikes peeking into the strings' f-holes and the winds' bells. It took Leonard Bernstein and some other conductors to rebel in order to regain control by insisting on two or three mikes. We think the time has come at Regency for a conductor and musician revolt.

All the fiddling on the mixing board made the music sound synthetic, as if generated by a computer. Granted the sound was better than at the season opener where our colleague John Lambert reviewed positively from the lawn but where we - seated at a party in the high rent district - seem to have heard a different concert entirely.

And the loudspeakers crackled. During Mike Schultz's English horn solo in the second movement of the Dvorák - which, incidentally, sounded great in terms of the quality of the instrument and musicianship - it was as if we were listening to an old 78 rpm recording filtered through a bowl of Rice Krispies.

In the best of all possible worlds, there would be two sound systems at Regency, one for jazz and popular music, where amplification is the norm, and another for classical music. In this time of tight budgets, a parallel system may have to go on the back burner, but we just had to go on record as to why it is needed.