Eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney defined music as "an innocent luxury, unnecessary, indeed, to our existence, but a great improvement and gratification of the sense of hearing." When it comes to the ultimate in luxurious gratification of the sense of hearing, where we listen to music can be as important as what we listen to - and there's the rub.
Although the ancient Greeks managed to do pretty darn well with acoustics - in outdoor amphitheaters, no less - hordes of physicists, engineers, architects and other high-priced specialists do not guarantee fabulous acoustical results these days.
Many's the concert venue that has turned out to be deadly when it comes to transmitting sound from the stage to the audience - Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall springs to mind. Many's the concert venue that has had to be fiddled with in one way or another to produce a better sound, or correct previous attempts to do so; acoustical renovations have taken place in recent years at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall and Chicago's Symphony Hall, to name a few.
Cynical folks tend to think of acoustics as more of a gamble than a science. Easy to understand why. You can spend millions and millions on a new concert hall, applying every state-of-the-art principle on acoustics in the process - and still not get a sound as lively, realistic, warm and sense-stirring as that at Second Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. Go figure.
This thought popped into my mind Sunday evening at the latest "Chamber Music by Candlelight" concert there. The 1930 building, with its elegant colonial styling, wasn't designed as a concert hall, and I'm sure its primary function will always be spiritual, but it's a terrific home for music. The sound in that place is a blessing.
With a combination of clarity, warmth and resonance, the acoustics at Second Presbyterian make it possible to hear not just every note, but also the afterlife of every note - the sound that continues for just a moment through reverberation. In my visits to the place, these attributes have held true from the lowest to highest levels of pitch and volume.
From the first, bittersweet measures of Mendelssohn's A minor String Quartet, Op. 13, on Sunday, the ear was drawn into the experience. The music didn't seem to come from up front, where the players were sitting, but from the very pew I was sitting in toward the back of the church. It was like that all evening.
Another feature of the space is the lack of ambient noise, a prime factor in achieving an effective listening experience. Other than a passing siren and occasional, unwanted audience-produced sounds (including persistent whispering by a group in front of me), the only thing to be heard was the music itself.
At nearby Shriver Hall, on the Johns Hopkins University campus, every concert I've attended so far has had to compete with a motor hum, presumably the air circulation system. Otherwise, the acoustics there aren't too bad, although the reverberation is quite limited, leaving some of the music onstage. The recent, electrifying performance by the Emerson String Quartet there would have been doubly memorable in a warmer, more vibrant atmosphere.
Also in the vicinity is LeClerc Hall at the College of Notre Dame, which has a terribly dry acoustic that can take the bloom off even the liveliest performance by the Concert Artists of Baltimore there.
At Second Presbyterian, such drawbacks do not seem to exist; you are totally immersed in the music at hand. On Sunday, this immersion included an admirably tense, penetrating account of that Mendelssohn quartet by violinists Gregory Mulligan and Cassandra Harding de Colberg, violist Christian Colberg and cellist Dariusz Skoraczewski. Mulligan's tender high notes in the first movement came through with particular character; he could have taken a little more time, though, carving the operatic-like recitative passages of the finale.
The concert, featuring primarily Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members, also contained Dvorak's G major Quintet, Op. 77. The composer's addition of a double bass to standard string quartet instruments created a rich, deep tonal palette perfect for such an accommodating acoustical space.
Violinists Ellen Pendleton Troyer and Ivan Stefanovic, violist Colberg, cellist Kristin Ostling and bassist David Sheets relished the warm-heated score. Pendleton's sweetly molded phrasing of the third movement's aching song was matched by her colleagues. Despite a loss of intonation in the finale, the group's playing was consistently tight and expressive.
Christina Scroggins' performance of Prokofiev's D major Violin Sonata was not in the same league. Neither the music nor the instrument was always under complete control, and much of the phrasing was monochromatic. Nonetheless, the violinist caught enough of the piquant beauty of the score, with polished, spirited support from pianist Matthew Van Hoose.