Orchestras embrace of multimedia concerts


The Univeristy of Maryland's performance of "Petrushka." (Stan Barouh/Stan Barouh)
September 27, 2013

Out the windows of Mount Vernon, spring gives way to summer, and summer passes on to autumn, leaves rustling in the wind, and then the view is blanketed in snow.

This isn’t a summary of a year at George Washington’s estate, but a description of an orchestral work. “George Washington” by Roger Reynolds, which the National Symphony Orchestra will give its world premiere on Thursday (with additional performances Friday and Saturday), is billed as a “multimedia composition” that includes not only music and narration, but recorded sounds of things Washington might actually have heard — bird song, wind rustling the trees — and three projection screens showing the views from his windows, morphing seamlessly from one season to another.

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.

But lo and behold, the “Petrushka Project” has come to the New York Philharmonic. Paired with another Stravinsky work, it closed the orchestra’s 2012-13 season and was filmed for distribution in movie theaters this month under the title “A Dancer’s Dream.” Alan Gilbert, the Philharmonic’s music director, is planning to take it on tour.

“I couldn’t have imagined this five years ago, when I was asked to be the orchestra’s music director,” Gilbert said by phone last week.

In his four years at the Philharmonic to date, Gilbert has been an active champion of alternative forms of concert performance. In addition to its traditional diet of symphonies and concertos, the orchestra has offered semi-staged opera productions (directed by Fitch), theatrical presentations of contemporary music, and, yes, film-score accompaniment. “After four years,” Gilbert said, “it’s possible to say it’s not just an aberration. . . . This is our identity, not something we’re pasting on.”

Gilbert’s motivation is not to reach new audiences or find ways to make music more approachable. “I don’t buy that you need to juice up the concert experience with visuals to continue to be relevant,” he said. “I think sitting in a hall where music is being created live, in front of your face, is one of the most meaningful experiences you can have, still. That said . . . orchestras as institutions have to be more than just concert-producing mechanisms.” He added, “I am very interested in showing connections between what we do and what other cultural institutions and forces do.” And while he says “I would be lying if I said there wasn’t resistance,” the musicians are finding the work increasingly rewarding.

Meant to be seen and heard

Few multimedia projects involve this kind of active collaboration with orchestra musicians; far more involve the orchestra sitting and playing while something else goes on. In 2004, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Tristan Project,” a much-praised production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” with videos designed by the artist Bill Viola, offered a true collaboration between art forms. The New World Symphony, the training orchestra for young professionals in Florida, is exploring such collaborations more systematically, commissioning filmmakers to create work to be shown as part of concerts in its new, state-of-the-art, Frank Gehry-designed hall.

“We did indeed think that new artistic forms would come of the rebalancing of the visual and aural experience,” said Howard Herring, the orchestra’s president and CEO, in a telephone interview last spring.

Virtually everyone who’s seriously involved with multimedia stresses that it’s not about pandering or dumbing down. “This idea of making the symphony orchestra accessible to everyone, that can’t be the goal,” Baltimore’s Alsop said by phone last week. “The goal has to be to preserve the integrity of the art form.” The vast majority of these orchestral projects involve works that were written with a theatrical element in mind in the first place. You could argue that Fitch’s theatrical approach to “Petrushka” is more in keeping with the work’s original spirit.

The NSO’s commitment to multimedia is hard to pin down. “Multimedia is a term that’s misused,” says the orchestra’s director of artistic planning, Nigel Boon. “Maybe it’s only become misused now that I know what this Roger Reynolds piece is going to be, where [different] media are truly integrated. We often see concerts where something is projected.” He calls this “music plus:” an orchestra playing live music to accompany a film or dancer. The NSO will be exploring this approach more intensely at a three-part mini-festival in May in which the orchestra will perform with several different dance companies.

It is unlikely, however, that the NSO will get up and dance itself, as the UMD orchestra did in its memorable performance of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” in 2012. Professional orchestras, Gilbert’s experience notwithstanding, may still not quite be ready to go that far.

At U-Md., however, Ross has free rein to move ahead. Ross says he’s an unlikely pioneer. For years at the start of his career, he was, he says, “invested in the feeling of classical music as shaping notes; if we do that sensitively enough, the music shouldn’t need anything else.”

But as he began leading student orchestras and, for years, the National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland, he began questioning the purpose of “training people to shape their excerpts successfully enough in order to pass 10-minute auditions in order to have lives in music with no say in what the orchestra does.”

“Are there ways of making the art that you’re presenting more impactful by understanding the music more deeply?” Ross says he asked himself. “Can you come up with a unique one-time show that includes what the audience experiences when they come into the lobby, how we come out onstage, how we tune, what we wear, how we interact with audience, whether we talk to them, what’s on the program; and in addition, is there anything we can show that would actually enhance the impact of the music? I can’t talk about projections without that being the point of it. If it starts to be that we just play music and it turns into a TV show, my stomach turns. That will not help classical music in any way. But if it’s done well, it just might.”

The National Symphony Orchestra

and Christoph Eschenbach will perform the world premiere of “George Washington” on Thursday at the Kennedy Center, with additional performances on Oct. 4 and 5. Also on the program are Saint-Saens’s “Organ Symphony” and Haydn’s Symphony No. 21. www.kennedy-center.org.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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