Live from Los Angeles, it’s their orchestra

On Wednesday night, I went to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s LA Phil LIVE rebroadcast of Gustavo Dudamel conducting Mahler 8 from Caracas. Now in its second year, LA Phil LIVE features three concerts in movie theaters during the 11-12 season, seen in 450 theaters in the US and Canada. My friends and I went to Union Square, and as we chomped on popcorn, and slurped down Diet Coke, I thought unfondly of the hag glaring at my sister as she quietly unwrapped a cough drop at Avery Fisher earlier in the week.

Here is the trailer:

The broadcast from Caracas began with a quasi-documentary about El Sistema–the youth orchestra program from which Dudamel emerged (future generations will sing that he was born fully armed from Jose Antonio Abreu’s forehead)–the rehearsal process of Mahler 8, the meeting of the musicians from the Simon Bolivar Orchestra and the LA Phil, the LA Phil’s youth orchestra program (YOLA), and Mahler 8 itself. Everyone interviewed (most notably trumpeter Christopher Still) was articulate and interesting, but this section was too long. With the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts, the interviews and mini-documentaries take place before the broadcast (briefly) and then during the intermissions, so you get the behind-the-scenes scoop, just more efficiently.

Much as I love the LA Phil, I’m not yet convinced of the reason for orchestral concerts in movie theaters. When I’ve sat at the Met Opera broadcasts, I’ve been happy there; that is to say, I didn’t wish I was up at the Met instead. When I watched the concert from Caracas, though, I wanted to be there experiencing it not just live in time, but live in person. GREAT, you may think: the broadcasts make people in the movie theaters want to see a live concert! That is great, in its way, but then this series becomes a marketing tool rather than an artistic experience in its own right.

I’ve seen a handful of Met Opera broadcasts for operas I didn’t see in the house, and then I went and saw each Ring Cycle broadcast in the movie theater in addition to seeing the four operas live (NERD ALERT). Even though you don’t have the sound of the hall, the majesty of the place or the energy of the live music, a (film) director tells your eyes where to go, and you can see the singers, the costumes and the sets far closer than you could from even the best seat in the house. The Met HD broadcasts are so compelling, in fact, that the house has been accused of launching new productions that read better on screen than on stage. Even with Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” there is a limit to what a director can do to make an orchestra visually compelling enough to compensate for the one dimension a movie screen offers and ill-suited movie theater speakers. (Our speakers weren’t great; I’m sure others are better.) Sure, we had the close-up of the harp strings, the gleaming children’s faces, the supersized orchestra’s fearless leader, of course, but over an hour of that gets repetitive.

The best thing about this concert was that it was most decidedly an event. Two orchestras, a piece that’s rarely performed, a city that’s not the safest place in the world to travel to, and a wonderfully organic reason for all the effort. This was a sight to behold, and I’m glad I got to. My ideal, then, would be to have say, five, concerts each season from concert halls and orchestras around the world. Concerts that are not just concerts, but are events for some reason. The New York Philharmonic’s presentation of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre a couple of years ago, for example, should have been seen all over the world. Sell a subscription for all five, while we’re at it, and have the same host, director and production team for aesthetic consistency. What I like about orchestras in movie theaters versus the Berlin Philharmonic’s (and others’) digital concert hall is that you’re still experiencing art with others. There are psychological reasons we want to leave our personal space to go out and see things with friends and strangers alike. What the Berlin Philharmonic has done is amazing, I just don’t think watching on my computer by myself does their final product justice.

Another option for orchestral broadcasts would be to add a VH1 Pop-Up Video element. Remember those? That’s how I learned, for example, that “tin roof rusted” meant “pregnant” (in “Love Shack”). Here’s one:

Different facts could pop up throughout the orchestral broadcast. These facts could range from score notations with visual excerpts of the music, to personal information about the musicians (“trumpeter Christopher Still hates this part”) (“x player has been in the orchestra the longest”) (“y player knits during rehearsal breaks”) (“the violins love to play this section because…”), to why instruments are being played a certain way. There could also be information about the composer, revisions of the music, performance history, and the concert hall. The full range from truly silly to insufferably nerdy information would be best, because then both orchestra nubies and orchestra fans will leave having learned something. Sure, you can obtain this kind of information from reading your program book before the concert and at intermission, but the learning element during the actual concert would be a reason to experience the music in a movie theater instead of in-person at the hall.

I’m still slightly nauseated from my great Speed Racer IMAX mistake of 2008, but an IMAX presentation of orchestral concerts would not only have the highest sound and screen quality, but the IMAX experience could be that “artistic experience in its own right” element that I felt was missing from the broadcast on Wednesday. The IMAX might also attract folks who wouldn’t go to a concert hall; plenty of people who don’t go to aquariums see those Under the Sea IMAX movies. My mother and I even saw a traumatically boring one about giant tube worms. If I’d go to an IMAX for giant tube worms, I’d go for an orchestra.

Per usual, it’s all well and good for me to dream up orchestras in IMAX and reminisce about VH1 from my little New York apartment. Who’s going to produce/pay/execute, etc.. The LA Phil should be commended for their experiment; it’s hard to be the first! I hope it only continues to evolve.

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