Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Audiophile Music
On Wednesday, 17 March 2021, I received an e-mail invitation from a musician friend to watch the YouTube streaming of a music performance by a Frankfurt-based chamber orchestra in which my friend plays the cello, taking place on the following night.
I had not spoken to Gabriel Mientka in a long time and had hardly noticed the occasional Facebook post, which showed advancements in his music career. I did remember that Gabriel was a member of the Cellharmonics quartet, consisting of Larissa Nagel, Christine Roider, Christopher Herrmann, and himself. And I had even seen some of their earlier performances, but — with two young kids in the house and a business to run — in recent years, we had stopped attending public venues.
In the time that Gabriel had been playing the cello around the world, some things had changed on my side as well. For one thing, my interest in setting up audiophile HiFi systems had led me to a deeper appreciation of music, which was slowly taking me away from repetitive Pop culture to more sophisticated recordings and arrangements of acoustic instruments. Depth, breadth, dynamics, rhythm, flow, and the presence of organic materials are the salt of great recordings.
When Gabriel wrote in his e-mail that he was now playing the Cello in the ‘Bridges’ chamber music orchestra, and that this could be streamed live via YouTube, I was immediately intrigued by the idea that I could listen to him and his colleagues perform live from living room couch, without conflicting with my duties as a father. What a wonderful and exciting opportunity. The fact that this music could also be played via our Martin Logan electrostatic system was a nice bonus, of course.
Apparently, the Bridges chamber orchestra had just come back from their winter break, and created a fresh new concert, premiering six original pieces that had been — in true Bridges tradition — composed by the musicians themselves. The e-mail went on to remind us of the special and challenging situation that musicians have been facing in times of COVID-19 and pointed out that the transcultural Bridges was a symbol of freedom and successful transnational co-operation.
On the night of the event, I called the family together on the living room couch, lowered the lights, and tuned our projector in to the YouTube stream. We set our system at realistic live performance volume and watched with anticipation. That the NAXOS theatre makes a decent venue for a chamber orchestra, was my first thought. It also felt good to see 25 musicians come together to perform their special craft, despite the fact that no audience was allowed to physically attend. It reminded me of the band continuing to play until the last minute on the sinking Titanic. In both cases this helped to bring about some reassurance that essential aspects of what makes us great as human beings are still intact.
I could not help but marvel at the orderly fashion in which all musicians played their part, taking time to pay respect to each other’s performances, each falling into place under the directions of the conductor. There is a pervading sense of dignity and respect towards one another that is especially highlighted in an orchestra as culturally and musically as diverse as this one. Bridges’s multi-ethnic musicians played a range of pieces heavily influenced by Syrian, Andalusian, Turkish, Columbian, and Hungarian music culture, the musicians’ countries of origin. The conductor was Nabil Shehata, who is also the chief conductor of the South-Westfalia Philharmonic.
Although our kids are just three and seven years old, we all enjoyed the performance very much. When at times concentration lapsed, this was mostly due to passages in which something was not quite right in the technical presentation of the music. For instance, some instruments, such as percussion, were recorded at very low volume. When these instruments took the lead or played longer parts, some of the original momentum and potential of the pieces were lost.
For the most part, we were drawn into the event. Although, for some reason, the changing of camera angles always resulted in a brief deterioration of image quality which again made it clear that we were watching a recording rather than being present ourselves. We were also surprised to see that there were cuts between the pieces which highlighted the fact that we were not following the actual event live. Sadly, YouTube is not known for excellence in sound. I am not sure what algorithms are used to compress music, but the sound quality was not on par with the usual ability of our home setup.
The pieces themselves were well-presented and gave a good impression of the ethnic diversity all around us and the possibility for cooperation between these cultures. Although quite different in timbre and harmonics, no instrument or musician sounded out of place, and no theme was boring or disappointing to listen to in and of itself. I am grateful for the opportunity of attending a concert with our children present in the comfort of our own home, a concert that each of us can relate to, especially but not exclusively, because we are friends with one of the musicians. I would wish for such luxury to become standard and have highlighted areas of potential improvement in the paragraphs above, simply because I feel that this type of offer, if done well, would be a lasting change for the better.
I enjoyed reading the musicians’ profiles on the Bridges Frankfurt website and on their Facebook page, as well as listening to Gabriel Mientka’s own composition. “Constantinople” was the last song of the event. It sounded full and energetic with lots of natural flow. A wonderful piece that left the audience on a high note.
P.S.: Candidly, I hope to invite Gabriel for an interview to find out more about his relationship with the cello and with music in general. I need to find out more about the people who make the actual music that we audiophiles listen to and to experience first-hand, if they in turn can derive some pleasure from performances being replayed at a higher than usual level of acoustic sophistication. My hope is that by listening to each other well, we will better understand what each side is striving to achieve.