The second of my donated tickets got me in to hear Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, and after the intermission, Shostakovich’s fifth symphony. I was particularly looking forward to hearing the Beethoven, since Mitsuko Uchida was the pianist, and she did not disappoint. I was sitting up toward the rear of the balcony (I went with a friend, and he took my original donated ticket, which was at the front of the the second tier side, in the second row – it seems that if you are in the rear row of one of those side tiers, the balcony itself that is between you and the stage muffles the sound somewhat, but he was sitting behind a nice lady who left at the interval and told him to take her slightly better spot, which made a difference) and from my location the differences in sound between the Beethoven and the Shostakovich bring out the plusses and minuses of being in a large concert hall. (According to Wikipedia, the main auditorium at Carnegie Hall is “enormously high.” Thanks, Wikipedia!)
The orchestra for the Beethoven concerto was smaller, and although I could hear both piano and orchestra just fine, I wanted to be a little closer to the stage – especially during the finale. None of the details got lost, but the edges of the notes were softened: I felt like I was hearing more reverb or resonance than I might have if seated closer in and lower down. This is not necessarily a bad thing. During the first movement of the Shostakovich, I noticed that softening effect meant that, for example, all the violins tended to blend together – you really get a sense that the sound produced by tens of violins from a large distance is a completely different animal than one violin right up close. But anyway. Distance or not, I was very absorbed in Uchida’s Beethoven. It was one of those performances where you reach the end and you realize just how deeply you’ve been sucked into it. Even from the way back of the balcony, the cadenza of the first movement, and the shape of the relatively short second movement – this is some serious piano playing.
With the Shostakovich symphony I definitely did not need to be any closer than I was. This piece can be and in this case was blindingly intense, and one thing I do like about large concert halls like this one is the sheer range of sound. The finale of this symphony is huge, but in the movement just preceding it, the largo, you can hear even the softest of the violin bits. The contrast in scale is amazing. (Also, hearing a big symphony orchestra from far above is pretty neat – during the first movement, I was listening with my eyes closed, and the contrast between all the strings, and then all the winds, is much greater than you get a sense of on recordings, and you can hear where everything is on the stage very sharply.) I haven’t heard this piece enough times to say that I have absorbed it, but it’s interesting how you can tell when the people performing it have. There is a quality to a well thought out interpretation that you can hear even if you don’t know the piece itself well enough to pick out what makes the interpretation distinct from others. As with the Beethoven, it was only when we got to the end of it that I found myself thinking about how much sense it made.