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Recently I have been to a concert, where Carmina Burana was presented. It was my first time hearing a live performance of this masterpiece. However, I have found out that live performance differed greatly from what I was used to when listening to the recording. In certain parts I could barely hear the performers over an orchestra (most notably Estuans interius, but even choir in In taberna quando sumus was problematic), making it a sub-par experience. My friend confirmed that she could barely hear the singers in some parts as well. As far as I can tell no microphones were used. I do not recall having this problems when attending another performances in other places, e.g. operas, where microphone support was not used as well.

I know next to nothing when it comes to music practice or theory hence my question: what could be the cause for such sub-par experience? Could it be the poor acoustics of the building? Or maybe I was just used to the studio performance of the work?

  • With the information you gave it's impossible to say what was the problem in that particular performance. Generally speaking, it's understood that the Carmina are a pretty demanding piece for the singers, what with the big orchestral forces they need to reach over. – leftaroundabout Jun 16 '18 at 10:05
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With the information you gave it's impossible to say what was the problem in that particular performance.

Generally speaking, it should be understood that the Carmina are a pretty demanding piece for the singers, what with the big orchestral forces they need to reach over. Operatic orchestras are strongly drilled to taking the singers into account, but perhaps these normally played only instrumental music. Maybe they had insufficient rehearsal time for putting it together with the choir, the conductor misjudged how loud the singers would be.

And yes, different halls can have very different acoustics – maybe they rehearsed it in a much more singer-friendly room. Although before every performance, there's at least a short “sound check” rehearsal in the hall, that's not guaranteed to give the conductor a perfect picture either: the room acoustics always change at least a bit when the audience is in the room. Typically you hear most things clearer with the people damping the reverb somewhat, but this is not very well predictable – possibly the extra reverb helped to carry over the voices, and once the audience was there you only heared the instruments clearer but not the voices.

It's also possible that you and your friend simply sat in a “dead spot” where the singers' sound happened to reach only badly but the orchestra did reach easily. Concert halls are in principle designed so everything sounds ok everywhere in the auditorium, but this goal cannot be fulfilled perfectly.

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Simple answer - the orchestra was too loud. Easy to do in this piece. But no need to make excuses for it. It wasn't the room's fault, it was the conductor's and performers' faults. It was their job to present a good balance to the audience. They failed.

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The sound balance in recordings of classical music is often quite different from that of a live performance in a concert hall.

The main reason is to compensate for the different size of physical space in normal listening conditions, and the fact that 2-channel stereo recordings are limited to reproducing a two-dimensional sound field, not the three-dimensional field created by the front-to-back depth of the stage in a large concert hall.

Another reason is the absence of visual cues in an audio recording - you can't see a soloist preparing to start playing, etc, which is a cue for you to start listening to them.

Many live performances may have less than optimal sound balance because of the acoustics of the hall, or the limitations of the performers (maybe the choir simply didn't have enough singers to balance the orchestra sound!), or misjudgement by the conductor, but that is an inevitable consequence of the fact that the performace is "live".

One way to experience the difference is to listen to a professionally-made recording of a performance where you were in the audience. That is relatively easy to do if you attend a concert which is recorded for radio broadcasting - many "live broadcasts" are repeated later, and/or (legally) available on demand via the internet for a limited time.

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