Virtual DSO

A new recording technology is music to Andrew Litton's ears

The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center was hailed as a "world-class hall" and "one of the most acoustically perfect concert halls in the world" by the media when it opened in September 1989 to the cheers of champagne-sipping socialites and other lovers of the fine arts. I.M. Pei's masterpiece was the perfect size, holding 2,062 patrons, and the perfect shape for such a venue--intimate enough to surround its audience, yet big enough to hold the sound of the 92-piece Dallas Symphony Orchestra, for whom the Meyerson was specifically built.

Unfortunately for an orchestra that likes to record--the DSO has released 19 albums since moving into the Meyerson seven years ago--the Meyerson's many-portaled reverberation chamber (which bounces the notes between the walls, creating the effect of thousands being played at once) and other acoustical features created a dilemma: There was simply no way to capture the hall's visceral, organic sound during the recording process.

The peaks and valleys of the sound would go flat; the depth would be lost in the digital translation. On CD, the Meyerson--so famed for its lustrous sound--would be reduced to nothing more than a shack, and for an orchestra that places such importance on reaching an audience far outside Dallas through its recordings, that wouldn't do.

Andrew Litton, the DSO's music director since 1994, was well aware of the predicament: On his four previous recordings with the DSO, he heard little of his orchestra's warmth, little of its soul, and in the end, the DSO's personality was wrung out in the recording process. Speaking from England, where he is serving as conductor for a new production of Salome, Litton recalls the frustrations he faced when he came on board.

"One of the things about working with such a great hall is how challenging it is to recapture the sound on record--how wonderful it is to human ears, how the instruments ring out, that sense of afterglow, that sense of warmth," Litton says.

But Litton has found the solution to his problem in the Los Angeles-based company Delos International Inc. After a long courtship that began in 1992, the DSO has just released its first recording for the label that utilizes a new recording process that seems to literally place the listener inside the Meyerson.

Called Virtual Reality Recording (VR2), the new technology is the difference between putting your ear to a transistor radio and listening to a concert from the front row.

"I think this is the most honest recording we have ever made, even in stereo," Litton says of the disc, which features the music of Tchaikovsky and includes a breathtaking version of The 1812 Overture. "I love the sound. I'm thrilled this new technology exists that allows us to capture the beauty of the hall...It's really a great mesh of existing technology and something in the future, something we haven't seen yet."

Delos president and founder Amelia S. Haygood worked for three years to convince Litton and the DSO to sign to her label; she attended numerous concerts and negotiated extensively with the management of the Dallas Symphony Association. In the end, she landed the DSO for an exclusive contract that will include at least two more releases in the next several months with more likely to follow in 1997 and '98.

"I think our new sonic breakthroughs were an enticement," she says of the reasons the DSO eventually signed on. "We picked the orchestra because of the quality. We wanted to let all of the world hear how great they are...[Litton] is a go-ahead orchestra conductor, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is one of the premier orchestras in the country. That's one of the main reasons we chose Dallas...

"[And] I find their management to be one of the most supportive groups in the nation, if not the world. The thinking there is right on target."

The Tchaikovsky disc is the first in what Haygood calls "a very long-term" relationship between the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Delos, which expects to release about three CDs a year; Delos' previous VR2 releases were a disc with the New Jersey Symphony and another containing the national anthems of 48 countries performed by the Millar Brass Ensemble. The DSO has already recorded two more discs for future release: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 should be in stores in October, and Mahler's Symphony No. 6 is due for release in early 1997.

The Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich CDs were both recorded in private sessions inside the Meyerson Center, using a 14-microphone setup; the Mahler disc was taped live during four concerts last fall and completed during one more evening session. The next series of discs, featuring the works of American composers, will be recorded this fall.

The Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Mahler discs were recorded in the standard stereo form for CDs and a new multichannel form that engineer John Eargle explains turns common stereo sound into a larger surround sound; the result is palpable even on regular stereo systems. (New systems designed to accommodate the VR2 technology won't be in stores for at least a couple of years.) The sound is so remarkable, in fact, that after the first few seconds of the DSO's performance of The 1812 Overture, your ears deceive your brain into believing it is somewhere else--maybe the Meyerson, maybe St. Petersburg.

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