Road Trip, Part One: A Sonic Facelift in San Luis Obispo

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

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Now and then, these eyes, ears and feet get a little restless, so it was time to wander for awhile up the coast.  So I headed out of Frazier Park the afternoon of May 3, gliding over hill and dale on the lonely Cerro Noroeste Road to State Highway 166, which then goes more-or-less directly west through the Coast Range to US 101 just north of Santa Maria.

First stop was to drop in on a rehearsal of the San Luis Obispo Symphony, which over that weekend was graced by the company of the highly-gifted cellist Zuill Bailey playing the part of the eponymous hero in Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote. I heard the orchestra in Sidney Harman Hall in the Performing Arts Center on the Cal Poly campus, a room with a Carnegie Hall-like, horseshoe-shaped set of tiers seating some 1,100 for symphonic concerts, expandable to 1,289. As they started up, I noticed a deep, rich bass sound – and upon shifting from seat to seat all around the orchestra level and side wings, I heard pretty good hall reverberation and surprisingly even volume distribution. The episode with the wind machine swept through the hall with a heavy, enveloping presence.  A nice place to hear acoustic music, I thought.

Not so fast. As I soon found out from the conductor Michael Nowak, what I was hearing was the result of a new electronic sound enhancement system that was installed only three months before.  Prior to that, the hall, which opened in 1996, reportedly sounded dead, hopeless.  The players couldn’t hear other, the sound hardly traveled beyond the stage, even audience members in the front rows had trouble hearing a soloist.

Meyer Sound’s Constellation System is in plain sight – small black microphone blocks suspended from the ceiling pick up the sound and feed it through a computer, while side stage monitors, a row of “invisible” speakers behind the black backdrop, and two suspended towers of speakers above the stage transmit the sound. Yet even with my long experience of reviewing amplified music in all idioms, I was not aware of its presence when hearing the orchestra – although I recalled in hindsight that at one point, the sound of a particular wind instrument seemed to be coming from way to the right of the stage.

If this is typical of what Meyer Sound is capable of doing, then the technology has arrived at the point where electronic reinforcement of problem halls will no longer be controversial.

Next stop: Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco for the new revised version of John Adams’s Absolute Jest.