Roger Nierenberg Teaches Listening

Kodaly, Britten, Wagner and Ravel at DeMenna Center

By: - Sep 20, 2016

Insight Concerts
Conducted by Roger Nierenberg
DeMenna Center
New York, New York
September 18, 2016

Roger Nierenberg conducted Zoltán Kodály, Britten, Wagner and Ravel at the DeMenna Music Center in New York. The audience was interspersed throughout the orchestra. For the Kodály and Wagner, audience members were invited to stand behind Nierenberg to get a conductor’s eye-view.

Nierenberg coaxed out a new listening experience. Over the past two decades, Nierenberg has offered leadership lessons to Fortune 500 Companies in the form of orchestra performances. The analogy between business and orchestral performance turns out to be provocative. Leading by example, by listening, by shaping and encouraging, are useful management techniques for upper level executives in addition to conductors.

Nierenberg is a charming presenter, offering background to the pieces played, and also suggesting why he programmed them. In the Wagner and Ravel, love awakes Sleeping Brunhilde’s and Beauty’s after a hundred years of sleep.

For these pieces, I sat under a violin bow moving across the instrument, tipping up high over my head. Nierenberg in discussing listening points out that the visual enhances pleasure. His concert confirmed his opinion.

Performers don’t seem disturbed by audience at their elbows. In fact, they confirmed that they were able to easily cocoon themselves and focus.

Having experienced the Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota’s surround sound at Bard College, the Helzberg Hall in Kansas City, and Disney Hall in Los Angeles, we are familiar with the pleasure of being surrounded by sound instead of having it come at you. 

The terrace seating at Symphony Hall in Chicago offers some of this experience. You are directly facing the conductor. The orchestra is in front of you, the percussion under your feet. What the Chicago experience offers is very close sound and also an enhancing visual experience. You can figure out how parts fit into the whole.  

Overall, sitting amidst the music allows you to hear the timbre of each instrument more clearly. While the instrumentalists worry that, for instance, the scratching of the violin which the instrumentalist can hear, should perhaps not be heard by the audience. In a music hall, some subtle noises are far distant and remain unheard.

The trade off is clear.  Some ‘ugly’ sounds may emerge, yet the close take on the music is thrilling.The woodwinds gave particular pleasure on the flute, piccolo and clarinet.

Social media have fanned an audiences’ desire for intimacy. Here is one answer. Clearly it belongs also in schools. The Kodaly Method taught often in Europe encourages beating to the beat. Children who participate in Kodaly go to concerts as adults.

Given the conundrum of declining symphony audiences, the Nierenberg proposal, mixing the audience in and with the orchestra, is a bold and helpful approach.