Art: Behind the Music

The Cincinnati Symphony makes its final recording with Maestro López-Cobos

Jon Hughes/

Recording engineer Erica Brenner and assistant Jim Yates supervise a recording session with the CSO.

It's March 19, a Monday evening around 7 p.m., and inside Music Hall, home to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO), the seats stand empty. But there is a performance tonight. And though there is no audience, it's a performance hundreds of thousands of Classical music fans worldwide will soon be able to hear.

Tonight, the CSO and engineers from Telarc International, the popular recording label that's home to the orchestra's CD releases, are preparing a recording that celebrates the Spanish heritage of Jesés López-Cobos, who is in his final season as the orchestra's Music Director. The pieces to be included on the release are Debussy's Iberia as well as three works by Joaquín Turina, one of the most important Spanish composers of the 20th century.

Monday was the second and final three-hour session (Sunday night was the first) and the piece at hand is Turina's Sinfonia sevillana. Following a brief presentation from tonight's producer, Erica Brenner, of a plaque commemorating Maestro López-Cobos' recordings with Telarc, the casually attired musicians begin warming up.

A recording booth has been set up off-stage in the prop room. Wires are piped in and tables and chairs are arranged so that the vital CSO and engineering staff are facing egg-shaped audio-monitors; a television monitor is focussed on López-Cobos on his podium.

"Ten seconds and we're in," comes a voice from the back of the room.

"Take 31," Brenner announces.

Brenner is a trained Classical musician who became a Classical recording editor in 1993 and began producing albums for Telarc in 1993. Her first experience with the CSO was in 1996, when she produced their recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 9. She's since done nine of López-Cobos 25-plus recordings with the label. While she's reluctant to ponder why the CSO's recordings have been such a success critically and commercially, her working experience with López-Cobos and the orchestra have given her insight into the releases' creative successes.

"The success of their recordings artistically has much to do with a mutual respect that Jesés and the orchestra have for each other," she says. "I think Jesés is an extraordinary musician, a philosopher and a humanitarian. His work with the orchestra is well-respected by critics and by listeners, and it has been our honor and our pleasure to record it."

As the orchestra launches into the first movement of the composition, Brenner, Associate Conductor John Morris Russell and Assistant Conductor José-Luis Novo follow along with sheet music, nodding along and, usually simultaneously, penciling-in notes (and occasionally groaning) at possible trouble spots. Engineer Michael Bishop listens intently, occasionally fiddling with the mixing board.

At the completion, Brenner calls for a 12-minute break, and López-Cobos joins her for a playback. Principal musicians also filter in and out of the booth, listening for solos and levels. Wearing headphones, López-Cobos follows the piece, moving his fingers slightly less dramatically than he was on the podium. He notes the same trouble areas, discusses them with Brenner and then heads back to the stage to pass along the critique. While dealing with over 100 musicians at once would seem a pretty daunting endeavor to the average person, this is a smoothly run, incredibly professional operation in every respect: The night is scheduled out to the exact minute.

"I do not personally have to deal with each and every musician individually as producer," Brenner says. "I work directly with Jesés López-Cobos, and he is the director and guide and interpreter for the orchestra. Our collaborations have been a very exciting and rewarding experience for me. I find an extraordinary level of dedication and professionalism when we are all there making a recording. They just keep giving it all they've got, even when I ask for something the umpteenth time. It's a pretty cool job to have when you come right down to it ... making really good music with really good people."

With López-Cobos back at the podium, Brenner leads them to a particular bar in the piece where they had lost some of the presence of woodwinds. "This symphony always needs a take," Brenner says. "Then (the principals) say, 'Hey, I can't hear us,' and then they go back and play like gangbusters."

"It's amazing, the improvement from first to second take," adds Russell. The performances are usually spot on — the volume of playing appears to cause the main problems, and they are quickly remedied.

The playing levels are so vital because the recordings are done live-to-two-track, meaning there's little studio tinkering that can be done after the fact to fix the levels. The engineers traditionally use only a minimal microphone set-up. Three or four microphones are placed at the front of the stage, with a couple around the hall to pick up room ambience.

"Basically we're going after (the) sound (you hear) as if you were sitting in the best seat in the house," Brenner says of the recording approach. "It is also a philosophy that embraces the natural balance of an orchestra and direction and interpretation of balance and color coming from the conductor rather than a mastering engineer after the sessions are all done. It is basically like flying without a net, because we don't use any backup multi-tracks, so the sound has to be right when we leave the sessions."

Brenner backs the orchestra up to a part where the tympanis need to sound "crisper."

"Take 35," she announces. The part is immediately re-done to satisfaction and they quickly move on.

Thanks to digital technology in recording, the recording editor can now easily go back and insert the "fixes" into the whole. Telarc prides itself on being ahead of the pack when it comes to digital recording. Though the company's first efforts were done with the then-modern "direct-to-disc" technique, Telarc soon moved to the cutting-edge digital format in the late '70s, becoming the first commercial Classical label to do so. The latest advance is Direct Stream Digital (DSD), which, according to Brenner, "captures the harmonic and spatial and transient information that was missing before" with a surround-sound quality.

But being so advanced technologically can occasionally cause its setbacks. Brenner says they've had to be spontaneous and creative on certain occasions, when they are using either prototypes of new equipment or early models.

"On one of the first sessions using (DSD) we had a very new piece of equipment," she says. "It failed 20 minutes before the session started, and our able technical assistant, Mark Robertson-Tessi, was on the phone long distance with the developers trying to rewrite the code on the spot to get it up and running for us. The hard disk recorder came back to life 15 seconds before the downbeat of the session. It was a nail-biter."

Tonight, though, things appear to go off without a hitch. And sometimes gleefully so. As the orchestra moves into the second movement of the Turina piece, Brenner lets out an ecstatic sigh at a particularly emotive string part.

"Ah, that's so gorgeous."

Going back to that first Mahler session, Brenner says she has always thoroughly delighted in working with the CSO, and she says she'll miss López-Cobos.

"I love working with (this) orchestra," she enthuses. "They are extraordinary musicians and can really pull out the stops when needed." ©

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