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Pauline Lerner

Seats and Sounds

June 11, 2009 at 4:59 PM

I am fortunate to live near two world class concert halls which host world class performers. Since reading Terez's blog The Nomad Subscription Season, I have been thinking about the prices, locations, viewing and, most important, the quality of sound in the different locations in the concert halls.

The biggest and most imposing concert hall in this area is in the Kennedy Center, a living memorial to President Kennedy, which opened in 1971. Snobs say that Washington DC was just a sleepy Southern town before then. The style of the interior can be described as "twentieth century imperial." When the Kennedy Center opened, the acoustics were as good there as in any concert hall anywhere in the world. It is built almost directly under one of the flight paths to National Airport, which is right nearby, but inside you can neither hear nor feel the vibrations of the planes overhead. The concert hall has been modified many times since it was built to benefit from new advances in acoustics. The other concert hall, the Music Center at Strathmore, opened in 2005 with state-of-the-art acoustics which have been fine tuned ever since. The Music Center at Strathmore is smaller than the Kennedy Center and has a more personal feel to it.

A long time ago, when I was married and moneyed, my ex and I bought season's tickets to the best, or at least most expensive, seats in the house, in the orchestra section of the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center. My ex insisted on this, even though he slept through many of the concerts. My office mate and his wife had season tickets to seats in the second balcony, which he called "Peasants' Heaven." He and I frequently went to hear the same concerts, and we'd share our impressions of the music. He often made remarks on the visual aspects of the concert, i.e., "Did you notice that there's a new principal second violinist?" or "There are more women in the wind and brass sections than there used to be." I felt like I was missing some of the fun.

After my divorce I was on a more limited budget, and now, in my ninth consecutive year of unemployment, I'm on a very, very limited budget. In fact, I'm on a no frills budget, but I don't consider music a frill. I limit the number of concerts I attend, and I always buy the cheapest seats in the house. This generally means the second balcony or the second tier sides. The latter seats give a limited view of the stage, but I can partially compensate for this by twisting my upper body around.

The Kennedy Center Concert Hall has a great virtual system for letting you see the view of the stage that you'd have from any seating section. You can look at a map of the Concert Hall online, move your cursor over any section of seats, and get a virtual view of the stage from that section. It's fun. The Strathmore Music Center has a similar system, but it goes one step farther. You can not only sample the view, but also select your own seat. For some concerts, there is yet another option. If you want a really cheap ticket and an element of surprise, you can pay $20 in advance and get the best available seat in the house, as defined by the management, on the day of the concert. I suppose that you don't get to attend if the concert is sold out. Still, it might be fun to try some time. The $20 price for a ticket is enticing.

In both concert halls the acoustics are excellent no matter where you sit, so the view takes on more importance. I prefer to be above the level of the stage so that I can look down on the performers. I always bring opera glasses, and I can see any soloist as if I were just a few inches away from him. I've seen Itzhak Perlman's big, broad fingers land on precisely the right spot on the fingerboard, and I've seen Yo Yo Ma's long, slender fingers press the heavy strings of the cello down the considerable distance to the fingerboard. If the soloist is a violinist, I can see just exactly how he maneuvers his bow for the desired effect, and I can watch the speed and the width of his vibrato.

You get the best seat selections and the lowest prices if you purchase a subscription series as soon as the calendar for the upcoming year is made public. Most subscription series have a list of concerts which are preselected for you, but I always buy the one that lets you choose whichever concerts you want. For the 2009 to 2010 season, I've bought tickets to hear Janine Jansen playing the Sibelius Concerto with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Maurizio Pollini playing an all Chopin recital, Joshua Bell playing with pianist Jeremy Denk, the Los Angeles Philharmonic playing works by Bernstein and Tchaikovsky, and the WPAS Gospel Choir, all for $171.00 for the cheapest seats in the house. The prices have gone up noticeably since last year, but I still think I'm getting a good deal.

PS. I'm now accepting comments, and I'd like to hear from you.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 11, 2009 at 6:11 PM

 Pauline, this was great fun to read, and yes, so similar to the issues I was mulling over in my blog. I'm looking forward to checking out those new spots next year; I'm relieved about the low cost of the "cheapie" section, but I must say I'm glad that, with my own symphony subscription, I can move seats if I want to (I imagine this is the same for you). When I was at the symphony last Sunday night, I looked up at the 2nd tier and thought, oh my, that is so very very far away. I'm inclined to think my "mid-way" spot, in 1st tier, where my subscription has been the past three years, is going to remain my best bet. But, we'll see! 

Thanks for posting this - I like hearing other people's comments on where they prefer to sit, and their own subscription experience. (I'm signed up for 6 set Sunday matinee shows, but I will promptly change out four of them, I'm sure, once my tickets arrive in August. Probably a funny way to do it, but I like having the umbrella of a subscription there, and they let you change around any way you want. So, it's TBA what and who I will be seeing...)

Glad you turned back on the "allow comments" feature! : )

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 11, 2009 at 6:20 PM

  Also wanted to say that I loved the concept of the "$20 and you get the best available seat at the last minute" ticket. That's wonderful. 

And I also enjoyed reading this:

>I've seen Itzhak Perlman's big, broad fingers land on precisely the right spot on the fingerboard, and I've seen Yo Yo Ma's long, slender fingers press the heavy strings of the cello down the considerable distance to the fingerboard. If the soloist is a violinist, I can see just exactly how he maneuvers his bow for the desired effect, and I can watch the speed and the width of his vibrato.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 11, 2009 at 6:41 PM

Wow, you are in for some great performances! I agree, music isn't a "frill," in life, or in education.

From Michael Divino
Posted on June 11, 2009 at 7:46 PM

Where do you live????????????? I was at Strathmore last weekend ! I live in Waldorf MD.  I like the Kennedy Center too.  I would LOVE to see Janine Jansen in March.

From Tommy Atkinson
Posted on June 11, 2009 at 9:33 PM

 I actually really like the second tier at the KC. The sound up there is way better than on the sides of the orchestra, because you'll sometimes get an echo effect. If I'm going for visuals, I like to sit up close, but for sound the second tier is great.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 12, 2009 at 12:16 AM

Terez, it's fun to compare our experiences with seating in our respective concert halls.  You mentioned two options with your subscription series, the ability to change your seat and the ability to exchange your tickets for tickets to different concerts.  I don't think my subscription series gives me either of those two benefits.  Thanks for telling me that you like my change to "allow comments."  I'm glad that you like the "$20 gamble" feature.  I might try it this season and if I do, I'll tell you how it worked out.  It is really quite impressive to watch the musicians as if you were right close to them just by using opera glasses.

Laurie, I agree strongly that music is not a frill in life or in education.  Unfortunately, it's very hard to introduce music into the public schools, although you've done it recently with a group of young students.  I really admire you for going all out to do it.

Michael, I live in Rockville in an area sometimes called North Bethesda.  I'm very close to Strathmore, and I take the Metro to get there.  You must be a dedicated concert-goer.  I think that Waldorf is about a 50 mile drive from Strathmore.  It would be fun to meet you at a concert some time.  Please let me know when you're coming to a concert at either Strathmore or the Kennedy Center.  If you really want to see Janine Jensen, you should buy a subscription series.  If you'd rather not do that, I will contact you as soon as tickets for that concert go on sale.  Subscribers get that kind of information before everyone else.

Tommy, I'm glad you agree with me about the quality of sound on the second tier at the Kennedy Center.

From Ray Randall
Posted on June 12, 2009 at 1:36 AM

As a TWA pilot I often had to make approaches to the National airport on what they called the "river approach." For runway 18 we would follow the Potomic starting ten miles out, winding our way down to touchdown. The key to that was multiplying the distance to go by 3 and adding two zeros to that and THAT was the altitude you should be at to land on the numbers and avoiding an overshoot putting you in the river. Why do I bring that up in this thread? Another key to arriving safely was to hug the left bank which brought you right over the Kennedy center at 600 feet. Unfortunately we were at full flaps and gear down by then which meant lots of power to stay in the air. As a musician I always cringed while doing that over the KC, but my life is worth more than a bit of noise, for which I am truly sorry. Oh, what about the passenger's lives you say? Well, let's put it this way, if I make it, they do too.

From Michael Divino
Posted on June 12, 2009 at 2:42 AM

Actually last Sat. we stayed w/ my sister in Odenton MD.

I would looove to see JJ so please let me know!  I would also love to meet you!

From Jim Glasson
Posted on June 12, 2009 at 11:00 AM

What a fun read Pauline!!

My wife and I attend Lincoln center in NYC a fair amount of times each year. There was a time when nothing but the first 10 rows and centered would do for us but frankly, one can see and hear less that close. 

Yes, you get to see socks and untied shoe laces and hear the occasional banter between performers and the flipping pof sheet music but when the program begins, your head is on a swivel, much like a tennis match and the sound is very centered to the instruments in front of you.

We switched to a back box along the right wall and have been there ever since.  I can still see quite well (sometimes with the aid of my trusty nikon pocket binoculars :) but I hear better and enjoy the show more.

Plus, I save in ticket prices!! Enough so that I can squire my wife around to Sardi's for a little relaxation afterward. Kinda' like diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell down at Delmonico's - LOL! 


From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 12, 2009 at 1:11 PM

 >It is really quite impressive to watch the musicians as if you were right close to them just by using opera glasses.

Okay, sounds like a must for next season.

Interesting that your subscription doesn't have the flexibility the SFS offers its subscribers; I would have thought it was sort of an across the board policy. I think it's very smart of the SFS to do that, otherwise I wouldn't be in year 4 of my subscription. Then again, sounds like you got to do a "pick your own concerts" subscription, and the SFS doesn't offer that. I have to wait till August, till they mail me my six tickets, then I have to fill out an exchange form and get my requests in the mail ASAP before the tix go on sale to the general public. (Usually about ten days leeway.) I always feel uneasy mailing the tickets back to them - it feels like mailing cash, but they charge $12 for changes over the phone. I can also do it in person, but it's a rather hefty commute for just one errand. And I've never had a problem with the mailing service - I get the new ticket back in less than a week.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 14, 2009 at 12:13 AM

Ray, thank you for your personal account of flying over the Kennedy Center.  It is very vivid and personal, and also a little scary.

Michael, I will let you know as soon as I hear about Janine Jensen.  I'm eager to hear her, too.

Jim, I'm glad you liked my blog.  Your experience at Lincoln Center is similar to mine at the Kennedy Center and Strathmore.

Terez, definitely bring your opera glasses or small binoculars to your concerts.  You'll be surprised at how much you've been missing.  It does sound strange that the SFS subscription has a feature that the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS) does not.  You can subscribe in several different concert series here:  WPAS, Kennedy Center, Music at Strathmore, the National Symphony orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and probably others I'm not aware of.  Maybe one of these other subscription series has an exchange policy like that of the SFS.  I buy my subscription series from WPAS because they cross borderlines into the territories of the other organizations.

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