When the Great Auditorium was built in 1894 (completed in 90 days by a crew of shipbuilders,) there were 10,000 seats. Some years later the seating chart was rearranged, and now the big room seats about 7,000 people. It is rare to fill the place, upstairs and down, but I can recall a Choir Festival when there was a full house. The audience was silent as 1,000 voices and a full orchestra filled the hall.
It is a unique experience to attend an event there because the physical presence of the space is awesome. Its history is remarkable, and you can read about it in the classical book on the subject by Bell, Bell and Dufresne. (The Great Auditorium. Ocean Grove’s Architectural Treasure)
In the past, the CMA could fill that space with massive crowds who attended Methodist services The building is world famous. From a musical point of view we have the amazing Hope Jones organ (11,561 pipes,) with its awe inspiring sound—-front and rear registers.
Now that the Saturday night programming will be changing, as a music lover, I hope that any performances there will be done with little or no amplification, as it was early in the 20th century. Whenever modern pop groups have shown up lately, they would bring their own sound equipment and personnel. They flood that magnificent wooden building with distorted, ear splitting noise, so severe that the words are drowned out and the timber of the instruments is blurred into mush. Thank goodness Wolfgang himself is no longer around, because he would despair and even wind up deafened like his pal Beethoven.
I was in the audience when Ocean Grover and Metropolitan Opera star Ronald Naldi came out to sing the Star Spangled Banner prior to a Saturday night appearance by Tony Bennett. Naldi’s magnificent unamplified tenor voice was effortlessly projected to the far reaches of the hall. It was breathtaking. Ronald Naldi told us later that he could achieve that because of his years of special training which pop and jazz vocalists almost never receive.
Musicians say that playing in the GA is like making music inside a giant cello—the acoustics are legendary, and I have heard musicians on that stage express how awed they felt to be performing there.
Tony Bennett came out shaking his head. He was in awe of Naldi’s performance. He said that he too wanted to try performing unamplified, but he couldn’t do it. So sometimes a performer needs a little help from his friends, but no one should be allowed to play the big room without sound technicians who are respectful of a place where first rate musicians come just to experience the acoustics and have been doing so since 1894.
How often does one get to hear live music inside a historic structure? We should emulate, whenever possible, the practice of using unamplified sound as at the Vienna Opera House and La Scala. The most they use is a form of subtle “acoustic enhancement.” Is that possible inside the Great Auditorium? Now seems like a good time to take a look at that idea, although classical performers have already been respecting that approach (eg the Canadian and the Salvation Army Brass, Phil Smith, opera singers, and symphonic orchestras.) The GA could once again become a Mecca for music lovers.
Here is a performance from 1897 in the GA–unamplified. Don’t they sound great?
GREATER NEW YORK QUARTETTE: “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep” (How about that bass note at the end!!) Recorded on wax cylinder in the GA in 1897.