If there's any quibble with tonight's one-hour public television broadcast of the Philadelphia Orchestra called "Symphonie Fantastique: A Conductor's View," it's the premise that it is a new way of televising symphonic music.
In his opening remarks, Philadelphia Music Director Riccardo Muti makes the case that this presentation of Berlioz's drug-crazed landmark of romanticism is innovative: "I was very happy when television director Kirk Browning invited me to cooperate with him on this program. I showed him my view of the score -- which part of the orchestra and which instruments would be in my mind during the performance. Berlioz's work offers a constant challenge to the conductor and to the orchestra players as well -- enormous dynamic range, complex and varied sonorities. It is one of those concert pieces the listener should perhaps see as well as hear, to fully appreciate. I think the eye can help the ear discover musical subtleties."
Well, okay. Browning does have a highly developed sense of when to focus on instruments like the timpani -- which is when the timpani are being played (and especially interesting in this work because three timpanists are required). And he knows when to show the emoting of conductor Muti, with his handsome visage, with its tough-guy, Stallone-type mouth. The camera work is excellent, but there's nothing revolutionary about it. Browning is the preeminent pro in the television music business and these things, caught at Pasadena's Ambassador Theater during a tour, are nothing new to him (it airs on Channel 26 at 8 p.m. and will be simulcast on WETA-FM 91).
All that said, the performance is superb, and that's what really matters. There are absolute prodigies of execution. Listen, for instance, to those very timpani. There is never a lag behind the rest of the orchestra; in many ensembles it is so common that one almost takes it for granted. Listen to the subtlety of the solo oboe. And there is dazzling precision of the pizzicato strings.