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An acoustics horror story

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Two years ago at the NAFA Lee Foundation Theatre, a tender moment between Victor Ong and the newly formed Asian Culture Symphony Orchestra during the Yellow River Piano Concerto was disrupted by a faint but unmistakable melody from the Butterfly Lovers. It came from a dressing room one floor below the concert hall, where unwitting culprit Gabriel Ng was warming up generously for his turn in the spotlight. All on stage learnt an important lesson: there’s no privacy in the rooms backstage of this theatre, especially during a live performance.

Surely such issues should only be faced by amateur music productions in average concert halls, but last Saturday’s concert (with the Borodin Quartet and musicians of the SSO) demonstrated that even the Victoria Concert Hall is susceptible to such issues. Five minutes into the Schubert String Quintet, bass beats from the hip-hop music playing in the wedding reception downstairs at the Sinfonia Ristorante could be clearly felt in the hall. Constant low frequency noise is highly distracting — imagine trying to study next to a club or a construction site — so needless to say, the chamber music experience was utterly destroyed for many in the audience. Thankfully only the first half of the night was affected.

While it is generally known that the refurbished Victoria Concert Hall has struggled with acoustics issues in the past, this is not an issue that physics alone could solve. Even if well isolated, the close proximity between an acoustically sensitive space and a noise generating space would most certainly require policies in place that sets an upper limit to the allowable noise level from the restaurant during a performance, or discourage event organisers from booking the hall when the restaurant would be used for an event. The fact that a chamber performance — involving the esteemed Borodin Quartet no less! — was scheduled at the same time as a wedding reception downstairs shows that such policies either do not exist or are not strongly adhered to.

I hope that the Victoria Concert Hall management would consider these issues seriously, if it aspires to be a world-class venue for chamber music.

And to develop a world-class music scene here in Singapore, perhaps we all need to pay more attention to acoustics, to avoid tainting the canvas on which we create and display our art.

Oh, and good luck to the acousticians for the Marina Bay Sands Theatre when Marquee Singapore finally opens. I’m looking forward to more acoustics horror stories next year.