The Concert Hall Re-set Button

By Brian McCreath

Mar. 13

Every once in a while a concert experience comes along that reminds me why we still have concerts in this age of iPods, downloads, streaming, and (ahem) radio. On Saturday night my wife and I headed to the Back Bay to hear the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, referred to by some as Akamus, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston and Boston Early Music Festival.

Jordan Hall (left) is a place I know really well, having heard and played a huge number of concerts there. The ensemble is one I know almost as well, at least as it’s appeared on many stellar recordings. (Check out the latest – Bach’s Art of Fugue – on The Bach Hour.) Even the program was on the highly familiar side: a Telemann Ouverture (Suite), Bach’s Brandenburg 5, one of Handel’s Opus 6 Concerti Grossi. (The conventionality of the rep almost scuttled my desire to go; good thing it didn’t. Read on.)

But something was out of synch as the concert began. Given the familiarity of the overall terrain, there was no choice: it had to be … me. I couldn’t engage.

At first I thought it was just because the concert began with Telemann, whose music I sometimes struggle to plug into. But no, Telemann doesn’t deserve that rap. It really was me.

As it turned out, I simply had to recalibrate. I had recently heard the BSO do Mahler 9. And as part of my job I listen to recordings all the time, especially recordings of big orchestral pieces. And even the recordings of baroque music tend to be highly produced audio-rich recordings that reward a pretty high volume setting.

But when Akamus launched into that Telemann Suite, the sound was so soft and transparent in comparison to my normal listening material that it felt like I might damage it if I so much as breathed too deeply.

Luckily, ears adjust quickly. Within a few minutes (well, maybe a few movements), my hearing had recalibrated itself, listening in a different way. I was picking up uncommonly subtle and remarkable phrasing approaches and a stunningly unified rhythmic feel from the ensemble. Ah, I thought, now it’s clear why this band is regarded as one of the best in the world.

By the end of the Telemann, as we waited for the stage change for Brandenburg 5, I turned to my wife and said, “There are some circles of people where, if you mentioned to them that you heard Raphael Alpermann play Brandenburg 5, there would be gasps of disbelief and envy.” At the end of Brandenburg 5, she was the one gasping with disbelief. Alpermann, the group's harpsichordist, gave a performance of such detail, control, and passion that I’m still not quite sure how he and the ensemble pulled it off.

And the rest of the concert followed suit. By the end, a concert of over two hours had flown by, and we felt like we could have stayed and listened all night.

This is why, no matter how many other options there are for listening to music, you must go to concerts. The parking, the expense, the annoying ripple of lozenge wrappers – it’s all small change compared to the experience of being in the presence of great musicians bringing you an artistic experience that can’t be matched anywhere.

I hope you’ll take us up on the concerts we mention on the air at 99.5. There’s usually a link on our web site to more information about these events.

Don’t stop listening to the radio. But use the radio to launch yourself into concert hall experiences.

If you’ve got a concert hall memory you’d like to share, just drop it in a comment below. I’ll look forward to hearing about it.

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