Within Boston’s classical music sphere, the name Antonio Oliart Ros is synonymous with excellence in recording. Outside of that small world, relatively few people know who he is. But if you’ve listened to any virtual classical concerts recorded by a Boston ensemble or artist since Memorial Day 2020, you’ve probably heard his work, whether you knew it or not.
As the engineer behind CRB Classical 99.5′s weekly Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcasts and its “In Concert” series, as well as numerous albums — two won him Grammy Awards in 2019 — he was already one of the busiest people in the industry before the pandemic. But at a time when live music was at a standstill and gathering performers and audience in the same room was unthinkable, Oliart Ros took prolific to a new level.
“Given that GBH is a TV station and a radio station, the pandemic forced us to join the two teams and say, ‘Look, here’s an opportunity of helping the music community, and becoming this virtual concert hall,’ ” Oliart Ros said in a Zoom interview.
Since last spring, he has recorded more than 75 virtual or hybrid performances produced by GBH, including the Handel and Haydn Society’s “Messiah for Our Time” in December 2020 and the Tällberg Foundation’s “Jazz for the Planet” sessions in October 2021. Behind the console at hybrid performances, he uses his skills to deliver the virtual audience the closest possible approximation of the rich, full sound they’d expect at a concert hall. His upcoming scheduled public concerts include Rob Kapilow’s “What Makes it Great?” celebrating the music of Lerner and Loewe, presented by Celebrity Series (Jan. 21) and a program of Handel and Vivaldi with Boston Baroque (March 19), both at GBH.
“A lot of recording is about solving problems,” said Anthony Rudel, GBH general manager for music. “Antonio is wonderful at thinking through the problems and solving them.”
”Even if I’m obsessing about something, he doesn’t get impatient or angry, but is always ready to try more things and work some more,” said violinist Augustin Hadelich, whose recording of Bach sonatas and partitas — recorded at GBH’s Fraser Performance Studio with Oliart Ros in summer 2020 — is nominated for a 2022 Grammy Award in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category.
Oliart Ros arrived at GBH in 1995 after following a serpentine path to a career in audio engineering. Born in Veracruz, Mexico, he grew up immersed in the “son jarocho” (“Veracruz sound”) folk music of the region. He started playing the flute as a teenager and continued studying privately even as he pursued a degree in electrical engineering — one he never completed. At the encouragement of his teacher, a visiting American named Karl Kraber, he applied to Mannes School of Music in New York City and was accepted. But hints at his future career were already visible: during his first year at Mannes, the school relocated from the city’s Upper East Side to the Upper West Side, and a recording studio was in the offing for the new facility.
“I didn’t know anything about recording back then. But I knew about electrical engineering, and I was a student from Mexico and needed a job,” Oliart Ros said. “So I volunteered to help . . . and that’s how I started.” He would go on to play a central role in designing Fraser when GBH moved to its current complex in Brighton.
Those two skill sets combine to make Oliart Ros “without a doubt” among the best engineers Rudel has worked with in his decades-long career, he said. “The challenge of recording is that it’s 50 percent technological and 50 percent psychological … the artist has to trust that the producer will catch a mistake that the artist might not have and then say, ‘You could play that better,’ and have them go back and do it again. And Antonio has a wonderful … very soothing way of conveying that to an artist,” said Rudel. “It’s just a way of saying, ‘I am here for you.’”
Violinist Lara St. John recorded “Key of A,” her 2020 release with pianist Matt Herskowitz, in Fraser. With Oliart Ros, “It’s so quick to get the sound that I really want,” she said, noting that sometimes “by the time you start actually recording, you’re exhausted because the soundcheck took so long. But with him, he just seems to have a sixth sense for what it is you want to hear.“
“Antonio is not just a recording engineer, he’s a recording artist,” said Matthew Szymanski, the executive director of Boston-based orchestra Phoenix. When the orchestra launched with a 2014 Kickstarter project, Szymanski asked around about engineers, and someone recommended Oliart Ros. He’s been recording the orchestra’s events ever since, sometimes in collaboration with his wife, Stephanie Rogers, who is also an audio engineer. “I’m always passionate about the young groups — I always want to help them,” said Oliart Ros.
Phoenix is known for playing in unconventional venues, which sometimes demands a sacrifice of acoustics in exchange for atmosphere, said Szymanski. But that doesn’t extend to the tape: “Antonio can go into any room, whether it’s meant to be recorded in or not, and make it sound like an amazing concert hall when he turns around the recording.”
Fraser was designed to be a flexible space for classical, jazz, and folk music; it had never been intended for video broadcast. However, after Yo-Yo Ma live-streamed the complete Bach cello suites from Fraser in late May 2020 in memoriam of those lost to COVID-19, the possibilities were clear, though not without complications.
The Bach suites project brought Oliart Ros back to the studio for the first time in two months, as he had been working entirely from his basement since the pandemic hit. In those pre-vaccine days, every precaution needed to be taken. Working alone, Oliart Ros set up the microphones, making sure they wouldn’t get in the way of the remotely controlled robotic cameras that would film the event. The room had to be deep cleaned and left empty for an hour before Ma entered. It was a bizarre experience, he said. “Everything had to be set up with contingencies, right? Because what if he wants to move around?” Oliart Ros recalled. “We didn’t even know how to act with each other.”
The broadcast clearly affected the audience, which tuned in via YouTube and more than 150 radio stations across the country. “I mean, it’s Yo-Yo,” said Oliart Ros. “But the reception from the audience — I’m usually just the engineer. But people were calling me and thanking me.”
Looking back, Oliart Ros sees Ma’s concert as the catalyst for the bounty of GBH-produced virtual concerts that followed, with the video and audio teams collaborating. “We realized we could do it,” he said.
It would be another year before most venues opened to the public, but after Ma’s broadcast, Fraser was seldom dark. For some musicians — including St. John, who was featured in a Bastille Day concert — GBH offered the first opportunity to perform since the onset of the pandemic. For others, like Hadelich, it provided a space to realize pie-in-the-sky projects that had been saved for a theoretical someday. Whatever the occasion, Oliart Ros was there.
So what does he listen to when he’s off duty? Plenty of Scottish fiddle music when his violinist daughter is around, he said. But on his own, he doesn’t put music on. “It’s kind of sad,” he said and laughed. “If I have downtime, I end up listening to podcasts.”
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.