In Praise of Live Music

In Praise of Live Music

Written by Ted Shafran

Perhaps that’s an odd title for a magazine that caters primarily to an audience of audiophiles and music collectors. So let me offer a bit of background.

I fell in love with music as a small child. There was an old-fashioned portable record player in my childhood bedroom and I’m sure I wore out many records, playing them over and over again. I’ve been an audiophile for almost as long (although I probably didn’t hear that term until I was well into my 20s). My father was a physician and he had a number of colleagues who loved music and could afford the best of the time (I’m talking about the late 1960s). I clearly remember being overwhelmed by the sound coming out of those little boxes.

Alas, as a teenager and into my early 20s, I lacked the income to indulge in such luxuries and so I made do, first with homebrew speakers and a small integrated tube amp, and then, eventually moving on to a variety of Japanese receivers and – my very first “real” speakers – the original Advent, which were a sonic revelation to my young ears.

Today, I have audio systems in my city condo and my lake house, as well as at our friends’ home in Mexico and in my office. The most basic of these is at my office, consisting of a PS Audio Sprout100, driven by a Raspberry Pi running Volumio, and connected to a pair of Dali Spektor 2 monitors. Still, that system produces sound that is very likely better than anything I owned 45 years ago. The systems at my condo and lake house are considerably more sophisticated, including components from McIntosh, Denafrips, Eversolo, PS Audio, Pro-Ject, Ars Acoustica and B&W, among others. Few things give me as much pleasure as listening to an hour of music on one of my high-resolution systems.

But there’s one exception: listening to live music. I was reminded of this last week. My wife and I spend our winters in a small town in central Mexico, where there is an excellent series of concerts of chamber music and soloist performances offered by a local concert organization. Typically, they bring in young artists from the US and Canada. The concerts take place in a local church and the Pro Musica is lucky enough to own a modern Steinway Model D concert grand. A few days ago, I attended a wonderful recital by a young American piano virtuoso named Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner.


Sitting in the second row, the sound of the piano – in excellent tune – reminded me that I have yet to hear an audio system that was capable of reproducing that sound convincingly. There is always something missing, at least to my ears. I’ve heard systems costing upwards of $500,000 and while they certainly produce breathtaking sound, it nevertheless still feels a generation removed from the real thing.

Let me venture another example. For many years, I sang in a large symphonic choir and had the privilege of working with a professional orchestra (the Toronto Symphony) and internationally-renowned conductors. Sitting in the choir loft, being enveloped in the music of Handel, Brahms, Verdi, Bach and many others was an experience of visceral excitement. I remember, particularly, a performance of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust, led by Charles Dutoit. In the final scenes, the brass during the chorus of demons seemed to almost lift us up off our feet. I’ve never had anything like that experience with recorded music.


One final example. I’ve been lucky enough to see and hear Wagner’s monumental Ring Cycle in its entirety twice. (And yes, I know, it’s definitely not for everyone.) I own many recordings of that music but the experience of sitting and experiencing it in an opera house (in my case, my first cycle was at Wagner’s own theater in Bayreuth) is an undefinably greater experience than listening to a recording. Recordings may be more technically accurate, with greater singers, but they lack the immediacy and drama of a live performance. Frankly, the same can be said for any opera.

But it’s not just classical music. The sounds produced by an acoustic guitar, a stand-up bass, or a vocalist have a three dimensionality that I just find lacking in recordings. And even the very best audiophile recordings played on six-figure systems still seem to be just shy of reality.

Don’t get me wrong. I have an extensive collection of vinyl records, CDs, SACDs and digital music. I also subscribe to Tidal. So I’m certainly not a Luddite when it comes to recorded music. My music library offers me the ability to listen to whatever music I choose, at the time of my choosing. There’s no question that recorded music offers a great deal of convenience and choice. I’m certainly more comfortable sitting in a soft armchair in my listening room, as compared to a hard bench in a church.

But that doesn’t make the two experiences even remotely equivalent. I think that we would be infinitely poorer without access to live music, without the excitement of direct interaction between audience and performers and without the unique sound of live instruments and voices.

In this small Mexican town of 75,000 souls where I spend my winters there are multiple opportunities to hear live music every single day, ranging from jazz to Latin, from classical to rock and roll. If you live in or near a city, you will likely have even more choices.

So by all means, keep building up your library of great recordings. Subscribe to high-res streaming services. And keep on upgrading your audio systems, if that gives you pleasure. But don’t pass on opportunities to hear live music. It will inspire you in ways that recordings simply can’t touch.


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