The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Do we need smaller concert halls? | August 13, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently, senior New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote a column in which he praised the intensity and intimacy that listeners feel in a smaller concert hall.

His remarks come in the context of the $500-million remodeling of David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center and the opening of the Mostly Mozart Festival.

And he offers the suggestions as a solution not only for solo recitals and chamber music performances but also for symphony orchestras and operas.

The Ear compares, say, the intensity of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society (below top), with the audience at the edge of the stage) in the Playhouse at the Overture Center to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in the Capitol Theater to the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below bottom) and Madison Opera in Overture Hall.

BDDS 2014 Playhouse standing ovation

John DeMain and MSO from the stage Greg Anderson

You can indeed hear intense performances in all three venues. But overall The Ear has to agree that being closer to the musicians also brings you closer to the music.

Here is a link to Tommasini’s column:

What does your own experience tell you?

What is your favorite concert hall or venue?

Let us know.

The Ear wants to hear.




  1. A live concert is an experience, and there is nothing like sharing it with a crowd of passionate people in a large hall, such as Overture Hall. Or seeing grand opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York with several thousand people. Thus I am not in favor of doing away with all large halls. Melinda Certain

    Sent from my iPhone


    Comment by Melinda — August 14, 2016 @ 10:19 pm

  2. I once heard the Bach St. John Passion performed in New York at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The reverb of the Gothic heights turned the counterpoint to mush. Gregorian chant is well suited for it.

    Do you know what size the new UW performance hall will be? I think I sent you the news that it was given the green light by the state Building Commission last week.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — August 13, 2016 @ 7:44 pm

  3. My partner and I also really appreciate the more intimate experience of performances in a smaller venue, in particular Bing Concert Hall, on the Stanford campus, which opened about five years ago. With just 14 rows of seats (842 in all), the website boasts that no one in the audience is more than 75 feet away from the performers on stage. It really make a difference. Listening to an early music ensemble, one can actually hear the theorbo, and even the rustling as musicians turn the pages of their sheet music. One disadvantage of the wrap-around seating, of course, is that some audience members are behind the performers, but even at that, there really are no bad seats. Here’s a website with a short video clip and some photos:

    Comment by Ed Haertel — August 13, 2016 @ 11:32 am

  4. Sorry, I’ve never thought much good about Anthony Tommasini or his writings. He’s very pedestrian.

    He’s also mixing apples and oranges. He’s talking about how wonderful a small concert hall is for Mozart piano concertos with the interplay between performers and audience and the like and then applying this thinking to the opera and to a full symphony orchestra. Sorry, they are different creatures.

    Yes, it’s nice to be near the performers but that usually doesn’t work for Mahler programs (big orchestras); Strauss; Tchaikovsky; and almost any opera. They require big forces with lots of space.

    I see nothing wrong with having a variety of performing spaces: some intimate, some in between, and some for large scale forces. That probably means no one venue will be correct for all kinds of performances (and that is contrary to the Geffen Hall idea). NOTE: Geffen Hall was formerly called Avery Fischer Hall and seats about 2,700. Big, but it has poor acoustics. Madison has a blessing of different kinds (and sizes) of halls, some in the same space (Overture Center) and with better acoustics.

    By its nature, chamber music can be in smaller spaces, even individual performers/group’s houses as it was in the age it was mostly created in. Not so the opera or many orchestral works.

    The problem with Geffen hall is not just one of remodeling; the acoustics there are lousy. It needs to be torn down and completely rebuilt. I believe this problem is one of the reasons that the New York Philharmonic was not able to attract the conductor it really wanted recently and why the BSO and the Philadelphia Orchestra, among others, have made major inroads against the NYC group.

    At the same time, with regards to space, the artistic forces could use the same ideas in appealing to the audience: lectures and talks before performances, coffee/cakes/something to snack on afterwords with mixing between the musicians and the public, more breaking down of barriers, and cheaper tickets. I think that is what is needed, not a “one size fits all needs mentality”.

    Comment by fflambeau — August 13, 2016 @ 1:31 am

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