AS I APPROACHED the concert stage in white-tie and A tails, a musician tuning his violin looked up and paused for a moment. Surprised to see an unfamiliar face, he asked which instrument I played. I replied, "First camera!"
Symphonic telecasts are those rare instances when crew members behind the camera match the sartorial splendor of the talent in front. In less than an hour, we were transformed from flannel and denim cable pullers to a matched set of Fred Astaire clones. The musicians made a similarly remarkable transition. During rehearsals, I could locate soloists by their casual attire. Actual performances were more difficult. The wide-shot on our diminutive viewfinders approximated Scott's first sighting of penguins in Antarctica.
Occasionally, the seating of the musicians is changed to comply with a composer's demands. The number of musicians varies so often it literally becomes a game of musical chairs.
When videotaping a concert for delayed broadcast, the director has the luxury of improving or correcting a performance. The isolated camera (usually a close-up of the conductor) can easily be synchronized to the master. I recall the time a concert was recorded on two successive nights. The musicians played with great intensity the first night, but our performance improved the second time. As expected, the conductor liked the first concert. The director preferred the second. A compromise was reached in the editing room.
Before rehearsing with the orchestra, we run through the selections on audio tape. A fast piece can eat up shots like a Pac-Man game.
Each cameraman is issued a separate list of shots. They may be stationary, or require specific moves.
As if that weren't enough, the associate director calls out shot numbers over the headsets, and lets everyone know which camera is in use--and which two are coming up next.
All of this occurs under the assumption--false--that the commands given over the headsets are actually heard by the cameramen. One hundred musicians at close proximity is like standing inches away from a loudspeaker.
Of course, pictures make up only half the broadcast. Audio also receives a great deal of attention and many concerts are now telecast in stereo. Modern technology, however, has created a challenge. Live performances are subconsciously compared with previous recordings (often edited) of the same work. As a result, the standards have become even more demanding.
Every attempt is made to eliminate extraneous noise. Cameramen on stage never speak over their headsets. Like a nodding head, their camera is tilted up and down or panned back and forth to indicate "yes" or "no."
I've heard of audiences receiving silk programs, and cameramen being given special slippers to reduce noise. We could have used a pair of those slippers the night one of our cameramen assumed dress shoes would be provided. He appeared on stage wearing desert boots with his tails. This was carefully hidden from the audience, but I kept waiting for sour notes to emanate from any musician glancing in his direction.
When it's over, the stage lights are dimmed, the autographs are signed, and the musicians carefully pack their instruments. The adrenalin is gone, but the music lingers on.
Once, after a series of concerts with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the crew was treated to a home-cooked dinner backstage. The meal, a gift from the musicians, was a sign that two different groups of creative perfectionists can work well together.
Television can preserve legendary performances. Not only does a telecast break the boundaries of the concert hall; it can also enhance the enjoyment of music. Now, the conductor can be seen from the musician's perspective--while the orchestra can be heard from fourth row center. It used to be an unwritten television law: never crop a dancer's legs--or a conductor's arms. Today, extreme close-ups capture the remarkable communication between the maestro and his orchestra. A smile, a wink, or a nod, can relay a conductor's intentions and interpretation. The sea of anonymous faces, like soldiers in formation, can be viewed as distinct individuals--each with a separate contribution, working together in harmony.
Television is often criticized for competing with the arts. It's said we have an unfair advantage. After all, it does require more effort to visit a theater than to turn on a set. One hopes the effect of collaboration rather than competition will be a benefit for all.