When Reynolds was first approached by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association about a commission to mark the opening of a new George Washington library, he didn’t know much about Washington himself. “The need, from my point of view, for a multimedia situation was very clear,” he said by phone earlier this month, “because my evolving purpose was to try to put the viewer, the listener into a world that tells us something about that man.” He added, “What is it that tells us things about a person? Their words, but also the environment in which they lived.”
‘This is our identity’
Multimedia has been around in concert halls since at least the 1960s. But these days, video screens and other multimedia are less hallmarks of the experimental and avant-garde, and ever more a feature of the classical music mainstream. Washington audiences can see the NSO playing along with video game footage and classic movie musicals at Wolf Trap, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra accompanying Charlie Chaplin films under Marin Alsop, or the University of Maryland student orchestra exploring the role of movement and choreography in, this season, Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”
Yet even today, some audiences are put off by multimedia projects. For many, they are an example of pandering: yet another way orchestras are seeking to build up declining audiences by offering ever more populist fare. It doesn’t help, Reynolds points out, that the technology is often brought in from outside the field, and set up by people whose ideas of sound and volume are shaped by the rock rather than the classical music experience: The result is often just too loud.
For many others, however, multimedia presentations, whether they involve actors, dancers or video screens, are an important tool for orchestras to make use of as they move into the 21st century. “I can’t imagine a new hall not considering the possibility of theatrical elements,” says James Ross, who heads U-Md.’s orchestras and has spearheaded their experimental approach. “I would be surprised if in 50 years there’s not a lot more of this going on.”
In 2008, I reviewed a U-Md. concert called “The Petrushka Project.” Ross and the director/puppeteer Doug Fitch, who are old friends, teamed up to create a performance of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” that had the orchestra musicians wearing bits of costume, stomping their feet, drinking tea, and performing other stage business. It seemed a worthy one-off experiment.