We’ve had a busy couple of weeks here at the Oregon Symphony. In addition to two programs which are quite challenging technically and mentally, we’re also recording them for good measure. And we’re recording them for two different purposes. Three of the pieces – Piston’s The Incredible Flutist suite, Antheil’s Jazz Symphony, and Copland’s Third Symphony, are being recorded at the performances for an upcoming CD release. The entirety of the programs are being recorded for radio broadcast at some future date.
So, what does this mean for the guy/gal in the trenches? Well, for one thing, it means that there really isn’t any moment to let anything slide, especially if you’re a solo or otherwise prominently featured voice in the orchestra. Now, lest you think that we are letting things slide all the time, we’re not, but music is an ephemeral presence: the notes sound, reverberate (if you’re lucky), and decay. Then they’re gone. If little flubs happen, someone in the audience might notice, but in reality, they’re already listening to what’s happening right now (as opposed to the poor performer, who is berating themselves for the error and playing what’s happening right now at the same time). But when a performance is being recorded for broadcast, and especially for CD release, those moments might be immortalized forever. Luckily for us, the three performances of each series are being recorded and they will be edited together to make a largely blemish free recording. There are cases where there this isn’t enough – for example, audience noises that inevitably happen in quiet passages (including laughter at Ron Blessinger’s dog bark in the Piston suite). For these spots, there is a special post script to the performance process called a ‘patch session’. This is a period of up to an hour after the hall is cleared in which we try to clean up as much as we can in as little time as possible. Then, we just have to let the chips fall where they may.
So, why do it this way? Couldn’t we just record in ‘studio’ fashion in an empty hall and get everything perfect? Well, we could, but first of all, the presence of an audience does lend something to the entire process. We’re playing for people, not for the microphones (at least not entirely), and there is a vitality and energy to a ‘live’ recording that is often lacking in most studio recordings. Secondly, studio recording rates are substantially higher than the live recording rate, which is all that is enabling many US orchestras to continue to make commercial recordings these days.