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Behind scenes with the Florida Orchestra's making of a CD

British record producer Tim Handley, center, breaks down his microphones after recording
a rehearsal of the Florida Orchestra on April 29 at the Mahaffey Theater.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

British record producer Tim Handley, center, breaks down his microphones after recording a rehearsal of the Florida Orchestra on April 29 at the Mahaffey Theater.

ST. PETERSBURG — If you have a classical CD collection, you probably know the work of Tim Handley.

"Have a whiskey before listening to that one,'' Handley said of a recent release on the Naxos label of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11, a harrowing work about "Bloody Sunday,'' a massacre in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905.

Handley was the producer and engineer of the Shostakovich recording by England's Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, one of about 500 to his credit. His resume of productions for Chandos, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Virgin, Naxos and other classical labels includes four Grammy Awards.

Last weekend, Handley was ensconced in a backstage room of the Mahaffey Theater that was full of recording equipment. A 49-year-old Englishman based in London, he had been hired by the Florida Orchestra to make its first CD in more than a decade, of Dvorak's evergreen Symphony No. 9 (From the New World).

The recording was going to be done live, and for Saturday night's masterworks concert, the Mahaffey stage was festooned with microphones on stands: four across the front of the stage and eight among the orchestra players. The Dvorak symphony came on the second half of the program.

During intermission, Handley, a short, shaggy-haired man in sneakers, jeans and wrinkled white shirt, went around adjusting microphones, including slightly changing the angle of one in front of the percussion section's triangle, which has a crucial contribution to make at the beginning of the third movement.

"What mikes you're going to use and where they go on the stage is pretty much the core of what makes it work or not,'' said Handley, who calls the microphones his "babies.'' He uses Neumann and Schoeps microphones, both made by German companies.

A live concert recording is a compromise — it's less costly than a straight recording session — that presents a problem with noise: coughing in the audience, the crackling of a candy wrapper, the drone of an airplane over the un-soundproofed Mahaffey.

"The slightest little noise can be disturbing on a recording,'' Handley said.

Music director Stefan Sanderling asked the audience to be quiet — "These microphones are great. They can record our thoughts,'' he said from the podium — but there were still several coughs just a few measures into From the New World. The conductor stopped the performance and started over again.

From another session

The performance May 1 was splendid, but much of the music on the recording will likely come from a rehearsal the previous Thursday afternoon, when the orchestra, Sandlerling and Handley had Mahaffey all to themselves for two hours and 45 minutes.

In the Thursday session, the orchestra played the symphony from back to front, starting with the fourth movement, then playing the third, the second and part of the first, before running out of time.

"Basically, we did it that way, because the first movement is the easiest one for them,'' said Handley, who listened to the performance through headphones from his ad hoc backstage recording studio, which had a pair of speakers, a mixing board that he barely touched and a small, boxy computer. He followed along in a score of the symphony.

During a break, the producer spoke with Sanderling about places they needed to go over again. "I tell him what he's not got right,'' Handley said. "I hate to be blunt about it, but that's what he needs to know. He needs to know what's not jelling, not coming together.''

Usually, the problem is inconsistent tempos, but there are also simple mistakes — an oboe flub here, the first and second violins not playing closely together there.

Blending it all together

As the producer, Handley needs to keep in mind the big picture in which he has three performances to draw music from for the final product: the April 29 afternoon session, the performance on May 1 and then a half-hour "patch'' session after the concert when the hall was empty.

There is never enough time for a recording, Handley said. That is especially so under the new Integrated Media Agreement between the American Federation of Musicians and symphony orchestras under which the recording was done. The agreement is a good thing in that it allows orchestras to make recordings for CDs, broadcasts or downloads in relatively economical fashion. Each Florida Orchestra member is paid about $300 a season as compensation for a limited number of recordings. But time constraints stipulated by the agreement are a handicap in achieving a perfectly finished product.

Nonetheless, modern recording technology is pretty amazing. "The average classical CD has an edit every six seconds or so,'' Handley said on May 1. Already at that point, from just the first session, he had made 126 edits on the orchestra's From the New World, which runs about 45 minutes. He still had music from the concert and the patch session to work in.

There are other tricks at a producer's disposal. Although Mahaffey has less than wonderful acoustics — "This venue is way too dry for recording,'' Handley said, referring to lack of reverberation in the hall's sound — he planned to enhance them via computer.

"I'll put some artificial ambience on it,'' he said. "We now use what they call convolution reverb where they sample the acoustics of great halls around the world.'' He figured the ambience of the famed Concertgebouw hall in Amsterdam might work well on the orchestra's recording.

Michael Pastreich, CEO of the orchestra, said that plans for the release of From the New World are not yet set. He thought it might be well paired on a disc with Dvorak's Cello Concerto, which the orchestra will be performing in December with soloist Mark Kosower.

The patch session was a tense affair, with Sanderling and the orchestra playing sections indicated by Handley, speaking over an intercom. "Quickly, quickly, quickly,'' the conductor said testily at one point, urging the musicians to get ready to replay a troublesome section involving a key change in the third movement.

With just a few seconds to go, the orchestra took one last stab at a triple forte passage at the end of the symphony.

"Okay, thank you everybody so much,'' Handley said over the intercom, then he added softly: "It's a photo finish. I think we can make it work.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Behind scenes with the Florida Orchestra's making of a CD 05/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 4, 2010 6:56pm]
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