IT WAS A concert of audience choices, the National Symphony's bow to democracy, and I was sitting in for a sick colleague. Positioned on the edge of the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall stage, boldly playing my fiddle with the fervor demanded of us these days, I suddenly realized I was on the edge of an abyss. It was as if I were playing by myself, the oboes only distantly heard, the violins in front of me dangerously inaudible, the trumpet bouncing off the walls behind me. The echo effect bore no relationship to the conductor's beat. I was a beat behind. Or a beat ahead. God knows.
I was smack in the middle of trouble and up against a myth: contrary to the rhapsodizing of The New York Times, and in spite of the conspiracy of silence promulgated by informed critics of several newspapers, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall is not a miracle of 20th-century acoustical engineering. It is not the fruit of the labors of a god -- acoustical architect, Cyril Harris -- but the very flawed and puzzling creation of -- to be sure -- Cyril Harris and perhaps a committee, budget cuts, who knows what.
It is indeed -- for the members of the National Symphony Orchestra and for guest orchestras as well -- a cross to bear, a fact that in no way detracts from the acknowledged benefits to Washington and to the National Symphony from the establishing of the Kennedy Center itself. The center's architectural banality, inadequate backstage facilities -- particularly in the Concert Hall -- its structural defects, security problems, etc., may justifiably be ranked second place to the overall success of the center.
Nonetheless, we have cried in the wilderness for too many years. We have listened quietly to the well-publicized uproar over the Kennedy Center's Opera House stage and endured not only silence in the press as to our difficulties, but even the opposite: rabid extolling of the virtues of a hall which, for those who must perform there, seems inferior to Boston's Symphony Hall, New York's Carnegie Hall, Chicago's Orchestra Hall, Philadelphia's Academy of Music, among others. On the National Symphony's 1980 tour to Japan, during its summer journey to Argentina and Brazil, many symphony members concluded that virtually every concert hall -- even though it might lack true beauty of sound -- was easier to perform in than our own. In halls such as the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, the sound was exquisite as well.
For 10 years we have battled constant fluctuations of temperature and humidity and, mid-concert, must clutch madly for music scattered by chill and unpredictable gales sweeping into our Mahler or Brahms. Reeds dry up, strings go out of tune, the sound turns harsh. We catch cold. Surveys, our own humidity and temperature readings, frequent telephone calls to Central Control, have succeeded in developing an atmosphere of cooperation but little actual change.
And we cannot trust our ears. If we are faced with Lorin Maazel, whose superb technical control and balanced music-making enables us to trust our eyes alone . . . If we are mesmerized by the eloquence of Mstislav Rostropovich and his passionate musicality . . . If we are working under Claudio Abbado, whose less precise beat nonetheless so explicitly defines a musical line as to render technical perfection moot . . . If these conditions exist, we can overcome the deficiencies of the Concert Hall. We, then, play exquisitely. But the Lorin Maazels, Mstislav Rostropoviches, Claudio Abbados are rare types indeed. They are those unique individuals who enable us to abandon our well-earned individuality and submit gladly to a superior conception, a unifying idea.
The rarity of such men leaves us much of the time to our own resources, to our collective knowledge of music and of the orchestral repertoire. A vast resource, in any major symphony orchestra. In the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, however, we are often blocked from doing for ourselves, forced to succumb to bad technique and weak conception when our own knowledge could successfully carry the day.
The Concert Hall is blessed with just those niceties it's not supposed to have: a nasty echo and a concrete slab under the stage. The echo is what one horn player recently called a "naked" echo, as opposed to the natural reverberation of Symphony Hall in Boston. It's the kind of echo that's almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
The concrete slab is not supposed to be there. And Cyril Harris said it wasn't. That concrete slab beneath the oak floor of the stage means a lack of resonance in our sound, little depth or life in the bass sounds, and a constant fight for us to hear each other.
Music is, after all, an aural sport. We are supposed to listen. In chamber music -- and all music-making is chamber music by extension -- one plays with an intimate packaging of eye, ear, body language. It is the same with a symphony orchestra. We play by prayer.
We are the victims of a class system where the "experts" -- critics and conductors -- are the arbiters of our musical life. No conductor hangs by his teeth at the edge of the stage, following my beat into infamy, and no critic sits among us and experiences our struggles. And few ask our opinions.
Can the National Symphony become a "great" orchestra in such a hall? Yes. But more slowly than necessary. It seems a foolish waste of internal resources for us to depend -- for greatness -- upon the entrance of a hero. We are gifted folks ourselves. We'd like to meet our heroes halfway.