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January 16, 2007

Getting Visual On Stage

In my last blog entry I wrote about a wonderful performance by the Eugene Symphony Orchestra that successfully used video enhancement. One of the issues on the minds of many in the orchestra world is assessing the change in the expectations of audiences (and potential audiences) brought about by television, and therefore video enhancement of concerts is one of the new things that orchestras are trying. You might think "wait a minute...television is hardly new." But in fact, it has only been in the past 30-40 years that TV sets were on in households for five or six hours a day - or more - and thus we are now facing the first generation of 40-50 year-olds who grew up in that environment. We have not yet thoroughly studied how this has changed the mind-set of those people (not to mention later generations adding the internet), in terms of wanting visual variety or having shorter attention spans. It's fine to lament it - but that doesn't change the reality. Added to that is the decline of participatory music education in many of our cities' schools (and making music is still the best music education there is), and we are facing an important shift that we cannot ignore.

The tricky problem, of course, is what kind of variety, visual or other, can you add to the concert experience without dumbing down the music. Over the past decade, orchestras have been experimenting in a variety of ways, some successful, some not. As I've said before, it is critical that we all remember that by definition, experimentation means failure sometimes- none of us know all of the light bulbs that did not work before Edison's first success. We must create in our orchestras a culture that encourages experimentation and permits failure without recrimination.

Other art forms have tried new things and have found great success. For example, art museums experimented some three decades ago, and the result is the audio guide - now a staple of almost every museum in the world, but unheard of in my youth. Opera, of course, experimented with titles, tentatively at first, then enthusiastically. But in addition, opera has been able to change with the times because the technology of staging has changed - even if you stage a Verdi opera as he would have done, today it doesn't look anything like it looked to Verdi's audience. But many orchestra concerts today look just like concerts appeared to Mendelssohn or Brahms.

Other changes and experiments that I've encountered in my travels visiting America's orchestras are promising. In Columbus, Indiana, I saw a performance of Joseph Jongen's Sinfonia Concertante for organ and orchestra - and the organist was projected on a screen upstage. The entire audience could see the pedalwork, the pulling of stops - the incredible virtuosity involved in a complex organ performance, and was more deeply engaged in the music. Importantly, this was one fixed camera, not multi-angled with changing shots - so it was in no way distracting. I know some smaller orchestras have experimented with this approach for piano concertos - where the audience always asks to sit on "the keyboard side." Why couldn't this be the piano concerto's equivalent of supertitles?

The Amarillo Symphony used supertitle screens to show the titles of each picture in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. In one instance, when the audience actually knew that an oboe solo depicts a chick breaking out of its shell, they chuckled - and the audience was involved in the music in a way that I'd never seen before.

Other approaches to varying the on-stage experience of the concert are being thought about and tried - my purpose here is not to enumerate them. It is rather to encourage a receptiveness on all of our parts to this spirit of experimentation - a change in the ritual that has remained in its standard form unchanged for well over a century.

Posted by hfogel at January 16, 2007 9:15 AM

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