Monday, November 24, 2014

Musical memories (chiefly acoustical) of San Juan, Argentina

Back blogging after a two-week hiatus, I want to convey my impressions of the music I heard in Argentina — not so much as a critic of performances but of the places where performances happen.

Mozart Requiem rehearsal with local choir (supplemented only at final rehearsal by singers from Buenos Aires).
Specifically, I set down this paean to the Juan Victoria Auditorium in San Juan, Argentina, where I heard,  in addition to an abundance of student performances, two concerts by the Symphony Orchestra of the National University of San Juan. My wife, Susan Raccoli, and I were visiting at the invitation of our younger son, William Harvey, concertmaster since last spring of that orchestra and violin teacher at the university.

Soprano sang arias by Gounod and Bellini.
I was thoroughly charmed by the acoustic environment of the concerts, a week apart (Nov. 14 and 21). I found it hard to stay away from rehearsals for the second program, which comprised Mozart's Requiem and three arias performed with the orchestra by one of the guest soloists, the enchanting Veronica Cangemi, who hails from Mendoza, the province just south of San Juan, and enjoys an international career. No matter where I sat, the sound was generous and enveloping, but never glaring. Clarity was unrelenting, exposing errors as much as excellence. But the hall itself fortunately maximizes excellence.

I have an obvious conflict of interest in connection with the Nov. 14 concert, at which William was the violin soloist in Edouard Lalo's "Symphonie espagnole." Connoisseurs of conflicts of interest will understand that I'm reluctant as well to review the second concert, in which William sat in his customary concertmaster position.

So let me attempt to get outside my comfort zone — since I'm not well-versed in either architecture or acoustics — and sketch in what I think contributes to the splendor of this hall. The room contains a thousand seats, divided into three long sections by two side aisles, each with 48 steps. It's an interior room, so the artificial lighting has to rely on reflection off the blond wood and not on any natural light.

The layout could be a fire marshal's nightmare. Though the side aisles are reasonably wide, there are only two exits at the back of the hall for the audience, and two more on either side of the stage for the use of musicians and stagehands. This physical plainness presumably simplified the acoustical design. And when you look overhead, there is an elegant coffered ceiling, with no supplements such as adjustable acoustic clouds or, as in the Ruth Lilly Hall at the University of Indianapolis' DeHaan Fine Arts Center, curtains.

Side wall detail, with break between smooth and uneven pattern in center of photo
The sound doesn't have any irrelevant extra places to eddy into,  in other words. Smooth, curved walls project from the back of the stage, where the wall is topped by organ pipes. When the walls reach the audience, they break into a checkerboard pattern of large rectangular panels about an inch-and-a-half thick that provide a low-relief effect. There is a slight wave to  the side walls that further enhances distribution of the music.

Sr. Juan Victoria (for he was the architect, and the hall was named for him) extended the purity of his conception to the stage. The risers from side to side are permanent. Emmanuel Siffert, the orchestra's excellent director, told me that the physical
Emmanuel Siffert has improved San Juan orchestra in short order.
inflexibility is somewhat regrettable from an artistic standpoint. With a full complement of string players, there is no choice but to situate wind and percussion instruments a level or two higher. The chorus (when needed) occupies the remaining risers up to the back wall. From stem to stern, it's an unfussy, almost unadaptable design.

About 75 singers — a combination of a local and a Buenos Aires choir — participated in the Requiem. This seemed an ideal size for the hall and for Mozart. At their most strenuous moments, the choristers didn't overpower the orchestra. True, they were often not the last word in subtlety, and somewhere on my long wish list of performers I might like to hear at Juan Victoria would be a choir with a sweeter tone, where appropriate.*

Throughout, I was impressed at the proportionality of the sound: Successive moments of contrast came across in the proper relation to one another. You could be aware not just of louds and softs, but of the roles dynamic and textural contrasts play throughout — presumably in the mind of the composer, and expertly drawn from the musicians by Siffert.

One example here will have to suffice, from late in the Mass: "Agnus Dei" (possibly more Franz Xaver Sussmayr than Mozart, but surely enlivened by the ghost of genius) opened with the choir's vigorous "Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world" with imploring violin phrases clearly delineated, as if to set up the choir's humbly intoned next phrase, "grant them eternal rest."  That was then echoed quietly by clarinets and bassoons. Those three stages of expression are all there on the page, of course, but the hall gets some of the credit for giving them appropriate meaning and stature in the Nov. 21 concert. The rest goes to Siffert and his orchestra; and then the rest — from this quarter at least (see full disclosure above) — must be silence.




*Also among my Juan Victoria fantasies would be a solo piano recital, a concert by a first-class string quartet or a brass quintet, and a contemporary-ensemble performance involving spatial separation of the musicians — maybe something by eighth blackbird. And who knows how music needing restrained amplification might come across? Juan Victoria may just have to book Roomful of Teeth.