State-of-the-art technology makes the projection of the London Philharmonic Orchestra concert look almost like the real thing
One of the benefits of watching an orchestral performance live is that you can better appreciate the musical textures and nuances of a piece in a way that conventional recordings cannot capture.
But what if viewing a pre-recorded concert could give you an audio and visual experience comparable to, or dare I say, even better than the real thing?
This is a real question I ask myself after attending the recent London Philharmonic Orchestra concert in Hong Kong.
The orchestra – which gave five concerts under the late Sir Malcolm Sargent to inaugurate Hong Kong’s City Hall in 1962 – has been invited to perform at the music space again this year to celebrate its 60th anniversary .
But due to the Covid-19 pandemic and associated travel restrictions, the set was unable to travel to Hong Kong. Instead, he pre-recorded two specially produced performances.
While I was a bit bummed that I couldn’t catch the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which is known for recording the soundtracks for many hit movies, such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’, I was thrilled to hear that the concert screening experience would use the relatively new d&b Soundscape system. The sound system has already been used in venues and festivals such as the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Edinburgh International Festival and on Broadway.
Prior to the concert, the audience received an explanation of the technology and how it differs from conventional PA systems.
With traditional PA systems, there is significant lag between speakers in large venues like concert halls. This means that the acoustics are at their best in the middle of the concert hall – the sweet spot – while the sound quality is lower in the other sections.
For example, with traditional systems, audio and visuals can be slightly out of sync and localization of sound sources can be poor. This means that instead of hearing the orchestra as it is laid out on the screen, the sounds are all focused around where the speakers are placed, making it difficult for everyone in audience to enjoy and connect with the concert screening.
Sound engineer Candog Ha then explained how the d&b Soundscape system was used to enhance the experience of a pre-recorded projection.
For starters, the system uses more speakers, which are located 360 degrees around the concert hall.
Many more microphones were also used during the recording process, positioned to pick up the sounds of different instruments and musicians. The sounds picked up by each microphone are recorded as independent soundtracks.
Combining all the data allows the musicians and instruments to be mapped onto the physical space of the Town Hall Concert Hall, just as they were positioned when originally recorded at the Great Hall at Battersea Arts Center.
So the audience can hear exactly what they see. For example, you can hear the strings as if coming from the front of the stage; woodwinds in the center, and brass and percussion in the back.
It also allows the audio to be properly synchronized with the video recording for the entire audience, making the experience feel more like a live performance.
That’s the theory behind the system, but what about it?
The first piece of the show I attended (the first night) was the world premiere of Charles Kwong’s ‘Lullabies’, commissioned for the 60th anniversary of City Hall.
Kwong’s music has been featured at festivals in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Italy, Germany and Switzerland.
“Lullabies” is an airy opener featuring many light, soothing lines that overlap and intertwine, which Kwong says are like miniature lullabies each having their own breath life before fading away, or fading away. convey to another voice – a reflection of how City Hall, as the birthplace of Hong Kong’s cultural scene located on the shore of Hong Kong Island, has and will continue to witness many other memories, stories and changes.
With the soundscape system, I could literally feel this movement of sound overlapping like a wave as the melody passed around the various instrument sections. The experience not only gave me insight into how the stories of City Hall, or even Hong Kong, have changed over the past 60 years, but also brought back fond memories of just walking along of the coast of Hong Kong Island in awe of the beauty of our iconic Victoria Harbour.
Also focusing on the weaving of new and old, the second piece was Tchaikovsky’s “Fifth Symphony”. It was also played by the orchestra at the inaugural concerts in 1962 but this version gained new vitality thanks to the refreshing and masterful direction of Edward Gardner and the performance of the orchestra.
With the new audio system, I personally felt there was more layered sound. What I also liked about the screening was that it allowed us to see many close-ups of the musicians and the conductor fully immersing and feeling the music, as well as their breathing and fingering with the instruments.
In fact, after the concert, I chatted with two audience members and we talked about how nice it was to see the performers’ faces and emotions, which can be hard to capture when watching a orchestra playing live.
The screening was also a great opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the revitalized Battersea Arts Centre, which has a long history (including surviving a fire) and of course lots of character. My only problem is that there weren’t enough wide shots that would allow me to see the whole of the Great Hall and see how the orchestra moved and breathed as a whole.
While live performances cannot and should not be replaced (kudos to Hong Kong for finally easing travel restrictions), these new audio and video technologies offer an important alternative for lovers of the performing arts, especially since Covid-19 is likely to persist in one form or another. While it may not replicate reality, it’s definitely the next best thing.