The Bach Collegium Japan was founded in 1990 by Masaaki Suzuki. Photo credit:

Teleporting Bach – The Japan Bach Collegium in NYC

Posted by on Dec 24, 2015 in Performances
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Originally, I had planned on publishing this post right after the actual concert on November 7th at Zankel Hall (part of Carnegie Hall, NYC). As it often happens I had to shelve it until now – when I am finally stuck on a plane for 12 hours and due to the simply unfathomable fact that at then end of 2015, we still have no WiFi on most flights, there isn’t much else to do.

Title page of Bach's legendary Goldberg Variations.
Title page of Bach’s legendary Goldberg Variations.

As you may have read in my book review on Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, I am a huge fan of the baroque composer’s music, which is why this concert obviously entailed everything for me from eager anticipation to the hypnotised listening during a mesmerising performance. There was, however, somthing unusual about this one. Every now and then during the performance and especially those pauses of silence, you could feel and hear the entire concert hall shaking. The string performers from Japan looked baffled at first but quickly shrug it off with a smile after looking up and seeing everyone’s bewilderment. As it turns out, the New York subway line that whizzes along just metres underneath this venue isn’t quite so strict with itself as this audience when it comes to administering complete silence during performances. It may also simply not care much.

This made me think why everyone would still gather round in a less-than-ideally suited concert hall in the first place. In an age (and place) where many have splashed out on HiFi TV and speaker sets that could probably beat this venue’s listening experience by a mile, why isn’t this group of performers located in just the best recording hall out there to then have 5.1 (or 7.1 if you really wish) surround sound beamed to your personal home-cinema. There should be two valid arguments about this. One is that there is still something special to going to a live performance (other than the coughing, subway rumbling and occasionally uncomfortable seating that is). Another objection might be that no matter how ‘HD’ and ‘surround’ a recording is, it will never rival the ‘true thing’ in terms of quality.

Let me attempt to dissect this. First of all, there is nothing special about reality. While I may be drifting into philosophical existentialism here, which probably merits a blog post or so in its own right, there is no scientific reason why all technological marvels around us couldn’t recreate the experience or at least sound of a live performance. Sure, the visuals are rather two-dimensional or even fuzzy (when you have one of these still-not-so-great 3D sets) but this is often better than what you get presented with in dusty concert halls. Some argue that at a live performance, the sound originates from each instrument and therefore makes it more location-specific in your head. This may be true but whenever trying to detect this purely acoustically (eyes closed), I can’t really tell how this improves the experience or if it is detectable at all. On the other hand, obvious drawbacks are for example that in very large concert halls when sitting all the way in the back, the speed of sound versus light messes up the synchronization a bit – again something where virtual just beats reality.

In the virtual arena, The Berlin Philharmonic have been pioneering under Sir Simon Rattle to introduce The Digital Concert-hall, an online portal (and TV app) that live-streams concerts in superb quality. I tried it a couple of times in my home-cinema and was amazed by the experience. Even without headache-causing 3D, the effect is just like in any movie you would watch – you quickly forget that you are in fact sitting a few doors away from your kitchen and your mind tricks you into believing that you are right at the performance. A good system makes it works like magic. Why would you need teleportation for humans (pretty unfeasible scientifically if you’re wondering) when human brains are so easily fooled that it’s much easier to ‘teleport’ reality to you. At the end of the chain, your brain only processes incoming impulses anyway, either translated from photons or sound waves – be they from a piece of electronics or an actual instrument. As an added bonus you don’t have all those irritatingly tall people right in front of you that make you regret paying 200$ for your ‘premium’ seat.

The first issue raised above, about the actual concert-going as an activity, is much more touchy-feely and therefore more personal, too. I am one of those people who actually likes seeing the concert-halls of the world when traveling and dressing up for the occasion, maybe with a nice dinner or so before or after. Then there is also that intensity you feel in a room when you, for example, have a Rachmaninov piano concerto on show. I’m trying to convince myself here but there’s no denying it – on certain occasions actually going to a concert improves the experience. This effect seems to grow with larger orchestral pieces. In fact, chamber music such as Bach’s is too often performed in large halls where it is as out of place as a giraffe in a NY dog-park. Here, a home theater (if not a living-room performance as intended) offers a cozier, much more fitting atmosphere. Maybe with a few friends around and some drink at hand. This brings chamber music much more to life than any overly large hall can.

Having rationalised this out a bit, I come to the conclusion that about two thirds of the concerts I visit may better be viewed from home. Here’s the catch though: Other than The Berlin Philharmonic’s, few concerts are actually live-streamed at all or in acceptable quality. Hopefully this will change, but I have reasons to be skeptical. It’s a bit of a catch-22 that classical music fails to attract a young audience and that because of that, it rarely embraces the latest in technology to bring the music closer to them. It’s true that I am a more likely candidate to buy a video streaming subscription that my grandmother but my grandmother makes up at least two thirds of all concert-goers.

Lincoln centre has a wonderful club of Young Patrons of which I just became a member. Groups like these are incredibly important for classical music and should gain in influence to give the next generation a voice in how they would like their classical music performed and, yes, streamed.

Last but not least, the Japan Bach Collegium gave a masterful performance and it was certainly an experience to see them in the flesh. Truth be told, however, my listening experience and the planet would have been better off had we all saved some CO2 for our carbonated water and I would have viewed the stream of them perform at one of their wonderful (non-subway-riddled) venues in Japan from my home theater. It also would have felt like I was in Japan for a moment. Bach himself never traveled much further than the next town. If only he knew…

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