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A Sound Shaped by Time and Tools

Solid NYT piece on one of the most esoteric aspects of orchestral culture, the existence of distinctive sounds unique to particular ensembles. The group under consideration is the hermetic Vienna Philharmonic, though the superb comment thread offers a plethora of examples and insights about other orchestras around the world. [Two stateside examples of distinctive orchestral sound I’d contribute: Baltimore doing American music with Zinman, and LA playing just about anything modernist with Salonen. I also like some of Vienna’s recent work with Gardiner, who seems to free the orchestra’s winds and brass to play with the naturalness and verve enabled by their more traditional instruments.]

One observation informed by a concert I heard recently at the Musikverein in Vienna: the building’s main orchestral hall, in which the Philhamonic performs the majority of its instrumental concerts, has to be a major consideration in any discussion of how the group plays and sounds. First thing you notice walking into the Großer Saal [especially if you’re used to American concert venues] is the creaking of the floor boards, which turns out to be a prelude to the humming and throbbing of the floors, seats, walls, etc with sound at almost any dynamic level. I can only imagine what it’s like onstage.

The tonal feedback received by an orchestra in any regularly used space is a central element in determining how it plays – a good example is the Philadelphia Orchestra and the way its sound was shaped by a century in the acoustically locked-down Academy of Music. The Philharmonic’s singular combination of elasticity and unity owes much to the remarkably alive confines of the Musikverein.

My love of the Vienna sound and my own immersions in the city’s musical history notwithstanding, I believe that markers like ‘distinctive sound’ have become distractions from the larger issues facing the symphony business. The orchestra of the future will need to be adept at sounding like many types of ensembles, and will present a much more diverse array of repertoire in any number of radically different venues. The Vienna Philharmonic, with its rightly treasured sound, may be one of the few ‘distinctive’ sounding orchestras able to persist unaltered.