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by Michael Fremer
Stereophile
August 2000

Joni Mitchell played The Theater at MSG recently, supporting her new CD, Both Sides Now. Mitchell with symphony orchestra sounded like a no-brainer, so we got tickets, though by the time my friend was able to get through online to Ticketmaster the best seats were gone. We got second-best accommodations for $75, which seemed reasonable, given the cost of rehearsing an orchestra, then traipsing around the country with it.

The program handed out at the door announced that Herbie Hancock, Mark Isham, Peter Erskine, and a few other luminaries would be joining Mitchell, so we jazzed ourselves as we took our seats, which were actually pretty good; closer than halfway back and slightly stage left. The crowd resembled the one at the last Joni Mitchell concert I attended, only 20 years older, and definitely more gay. Though it was a mostly 40/50 something throng, as I surveyed the audience and noticed very little gray hair. I don't think it was dye, either. Must be the vitamins.

Arrayed across the stage was a really large orchestra - well over 100 pieces - featuring a massive string section, and set with a jazz combo featuring Erskine's drum kit, Hancock's piano, and more than one electric bass. (Mitchell's ex-husband and musical director Larry Klein played along on some tunes with Chuck Berghofer.) Then conductor Vince Mendoza entered, took his place on the podium, lowered the baton, and the orchestra fired up an overture - a piece by Debussy.

Disgust and disappointment. Not one note, not a single vibration, not a glimmer of sound - was audible from the stage. The mass of musicians might as well have stayed home. Every molecule of sound emanated from a cluster of shitty PA speakers hung almost ceiling high on either side of the stage. The sound just didn't originate at the speakers, it was pasted to them, localized in a small, bright, edgy, mono spotlight. After all, we weren't seated in the sweet spot between the left and right clusters. Wait a minute. Was I in a hi-fi store or a concert hall.

Mitchell entered, and once the sycophants had tired of yelling "We love you, Joni," she began to sing. Her voice, too, of course, spewed forth from a speaker array, overlaid with spitty digital processing. Talk about cognitive dissonance! Over 'there" was the live concert I'd bought tickets for. But I was stuck over "here" with a PA system playing what could have been prerecorded music or a remote broadcast from another part of the world, for all it conveyed about the concert I was supposedly attended.

Obviously, whoever sat before the soundboard had never heard of the term sound reinforcement. Instead, we got his or her electronic mix. Under such conditions, why bother going to see live orchestral music - or any kind of music? To watch more than 100 tuxedoed musicians sawing, plucking, and blowing away on unheard instruments? To see a speck of a beloved artist in the distance and hear her voice pounded into digital mud and pumped through loud but junky speakers? I don't think so. Anyway, it was a great performance. I think.

 

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