Weilburg, a picturesque little town at the Lahn, has a castle and this castle has a Schlosskirche, and this is where the Baroque orchestra Le Chardon, together with Doris Hagel and Markus Brutscher, played and sung a mixed Christmas programme of arias, suites and concertos this past Sunday afternoon. I administered the continuo, alternating between a 2 manual Ruckers-type Wittmayer harpsichord in good condition and a chest organ that smelled pleasantly like some kinds of Argentinian red wine (fresh oak shavings) and produced only fifths in the lowest octave in anything quicker than whole notes in an adagio (see here the true reason for the invention of the continuo cellist).
The church is beautifully built and decorated, but during the rehearsals, it seemed acoustically far from ideal. From my position behind the group, the difficulty was mostly that I was unable to hear the beginning of tones from the solo instruments and the singers. Even at the front of the stage there were problems of hearing each-other. Such conditions invariably help to raise the tension within a group. Endlessly varying positions are tested while some musicians appear to remain unhappy with any of the solutions. A soothing thought may be that the audience will dampen some of the after-sound of the hall. In churches with a high ceiling and a lot of wall surface, however, this effect cannot really be counted upon.
Then comes the concert and suddenly nobody has any problems hearing the others at all. What has happened? The heightened concentration during a concert brings forward what we actually do at a rehearsal besides putting a piece together. Precise hearing is largely a matter of being able to filter out relevant information; spending time rehearsing on stage has the function of preparing our mind for being able to filter out the sounds that help us to play in time and together. The phase of bewilderment at the beginning of the first rehearsal day is a sign that this learning process in the background of ones mind has begun, but is not yet completed.
Curiously, the realisation that hearing well during concerts usually is no issue at all gets lost among the post-concert handshakes and the flowers. Next time one meets, half deaf after hours of transportation, one will panic again.