EU to Put Limit on 'Noise' of Orchestras

VIENNA -- Shhhh! Mute the brass, and please -- go easy on the cymbals.

A European Union directive on noise abatement contains a provision that will limit the "noise" of symphony orchestras beginning early next year.

While it is not meant to ban Beethoven's "ba-ba-ba-baah," some musicians are worried overzealous enforcement could take the "Joy" out of the German master's exuberant ode.

"It can't work in symphony orchestras," says Libor Pesek, conductor of the Prague Symphony. "How could you apply it to Gustav Mahler, for instance, or Richard Strauss?"

Though musicians bristle at the claim, some evidence suggests the classics are just loud noise for those less-enthused with the music. In the 1990s, opera singers rehearsing in a Copenhagen park apparently caused a rare African okapi at the nearby zoo to collapse and die from stress.

Still, the main thrust of the EU noise directive is not aimed at symphonies. Meant to regulate noise levels in the workplace, much of the six-page document deals with generalities more applicable to construction sites, factories and other traditional places of noise chaos.

"Workplaces where workers are likely to be exposed to noise ... shall be marked with appropriate signs," an excerpt says. "The areas in question shall also be delimited and access to them restricted."

Because regulators recognize that all noise is not created equal, musicians are not worried about security tape going up around the orchestra pit any time soon.

The directive took effect for most other work places five years ago, but it was postponed until Feb. 15, 2008, for "the music and entertainment sectors" to allow creation of "practical guidelines" tailored to the concert stage.

That has not dispelled concerns that enforcement of the maximum noise limit set at the work place -- 85 decibels on an average work day -- could hamper musical freedom by undercutting sound levels preferred by Beethoven, Stravinsky or Bruckner.

Alison Reid Wright, an expert who has worked with British orchestras on noise reduction, says ensembles already are considering how to readjust their programs to conform with the directive.

"They wouldn't take a large noisy piece to a small venue," she said. "And some orchestras have been trying to balance the noise by offsetting a very powerful piece by less powerful pieces."

Others, she said, might follow the example of an Australian opera orchestra, which decided a few years ago to use "one set of musicians for the first half and another set for the second half" to protect their hearing.

Still others have begun modifying orchestra pits with acoustic paneling that absorbs some of the sound level without interfering with the clarity of the music for ensemble members.

Such aids were used even before the directive was conceived. Trumpets push out 110 decibels during peak parts of Wagner's Ring Cycle, tubas 110 and trombones 108.

Vienna State Opera director Ioan Holender said comparing noise to beautiful sound was like not differentiating between "weeds and the most beautiful blossoms."

And for veterans like Czech conductor Libor Pesek, the decree comes too late. "We're all deaf anyway," he said.