One of the perks of watching a live orchestral performance is that you can better appreciate the musical textures and nuances of a piece in a way that conventional recordings can’t capture.
But what if a screening of a prerecorded concert could give you a comparable, or, dare I say, an even better audio and visual experience than the actual thing?
It’s a very real question I’m asking myself after being treated to the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s recent concert screening in Hong Kong.
The orchestra — which gave five concerts under the baton of the late Sir Malcolm Sargent to inaugurate Hong Kong City Hall in 1962 — was invited to perform again at the music space this year to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
But because of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated travel restrictions, the ensemble was not able to travel to Hong Kong. Instead, it prerecorded two performances specially produced for the occasion.
While I was left a bit disappointed that I couldn’t catch the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which is known for recording soundtracks to numerous blockbuster movies, such as “The Lord of the Rings”, in person, I was excited to learn that the concert screening experience would use the relatively new d&b Soundscape system. The sound system has already been used at venues and festivals such as London’s Royal Albert Hall, the Edinburgh International Festival and on Broadway.
Before the concert, the audience was given an explanation of the technology and how it differs from conventional sound systems.
With traditional sound systems, there is a severe offset between speakers in large venues like concert halls. What this means is that the acoustics are at their best around the middle of the concert hall — the sweet spot — while the sound quality is inferior in other sections.
For example, with traditional systems, the audio and visuals may be slightly out of sync and the localization of sound sources may be poor. What this means is that, instead of hearing the orchestra as it is laid out on the screen, the sounds are all concentrated around where the speakers are placed, making it difficult for everybody in the audience to enjoy and connect with the concert screening.
Sound engineer Candog Ha then explained how the d&b Soundscape system functions to improve the experience of a prerecorded screening.
For starters, the system utilizes more speakers, which are situated 360 degrees around the venue, in this case, the City Hall’s Concert Hall.
A lot more microphones are also used during the recording process, positioned to pick up the sounds from different instruments and musicians. The sounds picked up by each microphone are saved as an independent soundtrack.
Combining all of the data allows the musicians and instruments to be mapped onto the physical space of the Concert Hall, just as they were positioned during the original recording at the Grand Hall of Battersea Arts Centre.
Thus, the audience is able to hear exactly what they see. For example, you can hear the strings as though they are in the front of the stage; the woodwinds in the center; and the brass and percussion at the back.
This also allows the audio to be properly synced with the video recording for the whole audience, making the experience feel more like a live performance.
That’s the theory behind the system, but how did it fare?
The first piece for the show I attended (on the first night) was the world premiere of Charles Kwong’s “Lullabies”, which was commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the City Hall.
Kwong’s music has been featured in festivals in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Italy, Germany and Switzerland.
“Lullabies” is an airy overture featuring many light and soothing lines overlapping and intertwining, which Kwong explained is like miniatures of lullabies each having its own life before dying out, or passing it on to another voice — a reflection of how the City Hall, a cradle of Hong Kong’s cultural scene situated on the shore of Hong Kong Island, has and will continue to witness many memories, stories and changes.
With the soundscape system, I could quite literally feel this wave-like overlapping movement of sound as the tune was passed around the different instrument sections. The experience not only allowed me to relate to how the City Hall, or even Hong Kong, has changed over the past 60 years, but also reminded me of fond memories just walking along the shore of Hong Kong Island, in awe of the beauty of our iconic Victoria Harbour.
Also focusing on weaving together the new and the old, the second piece was Tchaikovsky’s “Fifth Symphony”. It was also played by the orchestra in the City Hall in 1962 but this version had a new vitality thanks to the masterful conducting of Edward Gardner and the devoted performance of the orchestra.
With the new sound system, I personally felt there was a more layered sound. What I also liked about the screening is that it enabled us to see many close-ups of the musicians and the conductor being fully immersed in and feeling the music, as well as their breathing patterns and fingerwork.
In fact, after the concert, I chatted with two audience members and we talked about how nice it was to see the faces and emotions of the performers, which can be hard to pick up on when watching an orchestra perform in person.
The screening was also a great chance to appreciate the beauty of the revitalized Battersea Arts Centre, which has a long history (including surviving a blaze) and of course plenty of character as well. My only issue was that there were not enough wide shots that would have allowed me to see the entire Grand Hall and watch how the orchestra moved and breathed as a whole.
While live performances cannot and should not be replaced (cheers to Hong Kong for finally easing its travel restrictions), such new audio and video technologies offer an important alternative for performing arts lovers, especially since Covid-19 is likely to linger in some form. While it might not replicate the real thing, it’s certainly the next best thing.