Hearing an Orchestra with our Eyes
I've noticed lately more frequent conversations about the visual aspect of symphony orchestra concerts - or, more precisely, about the lack of a significant visual element. But these have not been conversations about video enhancement, colored lighting, or any use of technology. Rather they have been about the look of the stage at a traditional concert...
A few different things sparked some of these conversations. One was the appearance of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra on its U.S. tour. "Good Heavens! These kids look like they're actually enjoying the music!" That has been a typical reaction of those who have experienced this Venezuelan miracle. More pointedly, I've heard "wouldn't it be nice if our orchestra players looked as if they loved what they are doing." Another stimulus for some of these thoughts, with two colleagues of mine, was a Berlin Philharmonic video of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with Abbado. Both commented on the sheer physicality of the musicians' playing, the fact that the music obviously engaged every fiber of their bodies.
Sadly, my experience with many (dare I say most) American orchestra musicians, when I have raised this subject, has not been good. The mere thought that a visual element had any importance in their music-making brings forth sneers, derision, or anger. Trying to explain to an orchestra, for instance, that risers are important for visual reasons and unless they absolutely destroy acoustical balance (as opposed to simply creating a new acoustical environment to which musicians must adjust) they are important ingredients in the way an audience experiences a concert, can be a very futile conversation. The fact that most people on the main floor cannot see the whole orchestra, or even a majority of it, without risers, seems simply irrelevant to many musicians. The idea that their facial expressions, their demonstration of an emotional engagement with the music beyond the craft of playing the notes, could be important elements in the viability and future success of orchestras in this country, is laughed it.
People do not leave their eyes at home when they attend concerts. What we hear is connected to what we see, and there is an interdependence of senses that no rational person would deny. We are dealing with a generation of people who have grown up wired differently from those who matured before the ubiquitous presence of television, let alone the Internet. I am not convinced, though, that this is even a new, post-television issue. Read contemporary accounts of the great virtuosos of the 19th century and you will find detailed descriptions of the importance they clearly placed on how they looked.
I am not seeking fake emotions or choreographed movement. But I do not believe that the intense involvement physically demonstrated by the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic or other European orchestras that I've seen is fake. Something in the music resonates with their internal being. And somehow that seems different in this country. Is it the way our musicians are taught? Is it some reserve in the American character, a resistance to showing emotional engagement? I don't know the answer, but I believe that we need to discuss and explore the question.
Orchestras are making strides in at least thinking about this. Ten or fifteen years ago, virtually no American orchestra actually stood and faced the audience when bowing. The musicians frequently looked at each other, swabbed out clarinets, put away timpani sticks, even talked to each other, while the audience was applauding them. Today, more and more orchestras stand straight and face the audience. If we're fortunate, the next step will be smiles.
In my career as an orchestra administrator, I received letters fairly often from audience members asking, in effect, why the musicians looked bored or, worse, as if they hated their jobs. I've received letters from children at youth concerts telling how much they enjoyed the music, but wondering why the orchestra looked angry, or sad. Frequently when I've tried to raise the issue for discussion, the mocking response really deterred any serious exploration of the issue.
When I go to a restaurant, I want the food to be superb. But pleasant service and an attractive room are elements of the experience too, and will affect how frequently I come back. More and more, as we compete with a greater range of ways in which people can spend their discretionary dollars, we had better be aware of the complete experience we offer our public.
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