An edited version of this was published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, Mass., on Jan. 8, 2011.
I’ve been a faithful First Night attendee for the five years I’ve lived in Northampton; I’ve had a marvelous time and noted that the event compares favorably with those held in major U.S. cities. After reading the editorial “Saving First Night” (Dec. 31), I realize that Northampton Center for the Arts executive director Penny Burke has the health of the entire event to worry about, but many popular events like First Night Northampton live and die by the details.
One problem marred First Night this year: the music in a number of venues was so loud, those of us in the audience risked permanent hearing loss. As I approached St. John Cantius Hall for the Lonesome Brothers’ performance, a half dozen patrons were leaving, complaining to each other that the band was great, but the volume was so high they couldn’t hear anything. I could hear the band outside, so I knew I needn’t bother entering the building. As the weather was beautiful, I tried listening from the front steps, but it seemed silly to pay $16 for admission only to sit outside.
I gave up and went to Union Station to hear Girl Howdy, another wonderful group. I sat through two songs and kept moving farther back in the room, but finally had to cover my ears; I saw a number of other patrons doing the same. After the band’s set, I asked the First Night volunteer if the sound could be turned down, and he was brusque – he thought the volume was fine and suggested I speak with the band’s “sound guy.” My assumption is that this is the venue volunteer’s responsibility. Perhaps I was the only one who complained, and others were content to wince and cover their ears.
The situation was the same at the Center for the Arts, where I went to hear another favorite, MarKamusic. I’d anticipated ear-splitting volume, so I found a place to sit outside the ballroom. But I was curious: could the volume be lowered? I asked the volunteers, who said that they’d watched patrons of varying ages leave in droves because the band was too loud and that Burke had shrugged her shoulders when someone asked her if the sound could be turned down.
I ended my evening with classical and acapella groups in venues with better acoustics, such as churches and concert halls at Smith College. This solved my hearing-loss problem, but not the hearing problem – I missed at least three musical groups I love and have heard play at past First Nights.
If the Center for the Arts is losing its First Night funding, Burke has larger things to worry about than excessive volume. But if hundreds of adults decide not to take themselves and their children to First Night, that will result in a few thousand dollars in lost ticket sales – not a small consideration for a grassroots organization like the Center. Perhaps it’s time to stop shrugging and look at quality control.