What’s working — and what’s not — as the Dallas-Fort Worth symphonies return
For companies that are counting on packing the audience in seats and bringing multiple performers together on stage, the coronavirus pandemic has come as a shock to the system – a threat to survival, indeed.
From coast to coast, orchestras and opera companies began to cancel performances as early as March. Most have extended cancellations to the end of December, some to the entire 2020-21 season. The New York Philharmonic, now led by former music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden, has just announced that it will cancel all performances until June 13th.
However, the Dallas and Fort Worth Symphony Orchestras have chosen to adapt to maintain connections with their audiences. Both have revised their fall plans to focus on smaller orchestral works that can be performed with 40 or fewer musicians who are socially distant on expanded stages.
For the DSO, this means a much less dramatic first season for Fabio Luisi as music director – and the orchestra lost a date at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The FWSO’s search for its own next music director has been suspended.
The biggest surprise of the DSO performances, most of which are videotaped for later online playback, is how few musicians are needed to fill the Meyerson Symphony Center with sound. The 13-foot stage extension brings violins and violas closer to the audience, and lowering the acoustic canopy helps project sound forward.
What is less pleasant is that the new arrangements, in which DSO musicians are far apart on stage from front to back and from left to right, sometimes call the coordination into question and often cause tonal imbalances. It must be difficult to judge your own playing when you are so far removed from other musicians.
A “chamber orchestra” for a Beethoven or Mendelssohn symphony uses the same number of winds and brass as a full symphony orchestra, but fewer strings. Most orchestras in Mendelssohn’s day had smaller string complements, which would have given winds and brass players more justice with strings.
But instruments and playing styles have gotten much louder since the early 19th century, especially winds and brass. A recurring problem with these chamber orchestra DSO performances has been winds, especially overwhelming strings. Flutes, clarinets and oboes were often too loud in the balance.
I suspect that established chamber orchestras keep the balance working, with winds and brass playing with more restraint than in full symphony orchestras. As long as the DSO plays as a chamber orchestra, its musicians have to make similar adjustments. Ultimately, the conductors are responsible for the balances and have to adjust their expectations. During rehearsals, you should probably check the balance by walking into the spectator area while the assistants guide some passages.
At least the DSO can still perform in the acoustically excellent Meyerson. The FWSO was not so lucky.
After the FWSO had worked out a revised autumn plan with the Bass Performance Hall, they were informed two weeks before their first concert that the hall would be closed until the end of the year. After the orchestra management had already planned to move less acoustically demanding pop concerts to the Will Rogers Auditorium, they tried to move their classical concerts there as well.
With sound-absorbing tiles on the ceilings and walls, Will Rogers was adapted for enhanced performances. Symphonic music, however, requires an unamplified acoustic “bloom”, which is missing in this spacious facility with 2,800 seats. The tone stops as soon as a chord is released.
Patrick Summers conducts the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in the Will Rogers Auditorium on September 18. (Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)
Will Rogers also lacks a stage bowl to mix and project sound. The sound of the instruments behind the proscenium is sucked into the flies and wings of the stage at least as strongly as it is projected to the audience. Plexiglass partitions separating the players are health precautions, but they do keep the noises on stage out. At a concert on September 18th, one important wind solo after another could hardly be heard.
The FWSO’s determination to continue to perform is welcomed and many clients are overlooked the current challenges. However, you will hear better sound from your home stereo.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus shows no signs of disappearing for the foreseeable future. The prospects for “normal” symphony concerts in early 2021 do not look good. Everything can change. Stay tuned.