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City Desk

Distant Harmonies

by Richard Brookhiser

The concert hall at the museum is folded into its Egyptian wing. To reach it you must pass huge stone cats and bas-reliefs of peasants harvesting and fishing. Maimed statues of gods and pharaohs sit at attention with their heads split off; the faces of ordinary Egyptians still look, dark-eyed, from the painted wooden placards that once lay on their graves. It is disorienting to pass by such a welcoming committee to attend a concert of Bach, Chopin, and Schumann, but is it any less strange than the way we hear such music performed?

The venue. At least half of the classical repertoire was written to be played in churches, theaters, or the salons of private homes. Now we hear it in concert halls. I know this stage well; I have spoken from it (I have many hidden talents). It is clean and functional, designed to showcase the performers and project the sound — the ideal dramatic and acoustic setting. Yet one unlooked-for consequence of making music the center of attention is that any remaining distractions become even more prominent. In the old days our wandering gaze would have wandered to a saint, comedy and tragedy masks, or pieces of family furniture. Now it wanders to light fixtures. If they are recessed, it tries to ferret them out.

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