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Visuals in the Concert Hall

Worries that classical music isn’t “visual” enough have produced concerts embellished with film, photographs, and video. Obviously, this form of enhancement risks shrinking the musical experience rather than expanding it. A symphony linked to a visualized story or motif is likely to mean less, not more.
To date, I have produced two “visual presentations” with the video artist Peter Bogdanoff: one for the Largo and Scherzo of Dvorak’s New World Symphony (for the Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1994 and subsequently seen in California and Berlin), and another for the third movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (for Pacific Symphony in 2007). The circumstances were singular, the goals specific.
For the New World Symphony, I wanted to experimentally recontextualize the work by citing the cultural vocabulary of its first audiences in New York and Brooklyn, for whom this energetic and elegiac music conveyed a potent American accent. So Dvorak’s allusions to Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha were made explicit via text and illustration; and resonances with once iconic canvases by Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and George Catlin were explored.
In the case of the Stravinsky, I was obsessed with Stravinsky’s amazing confession to Robert Craft that this symphony’s vehement finale was inspired by certain World War II newsreels, beginning with goose-stepping Nazis for the opening march. Peter culled the appropriate clips — and they fit uncannily.
I assumed I would have no further occasion to apply visuals to a symphony — until I was invited by the New York Philharmonic to produce a series of multi-media “Inside the Music” shows resembling the concerts the Chicago Symphony calls “Beyond the Score.” So Peter and I had wound up collaborating on “Inside the Music” presentations of the New World Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique.
Now, with the support of the Mellon Foundation, Orange County’s Pacific Symphony — a terrific southern California orchestra with a terrific conductor, Carl St. Clair — has embarked on a three-year series of multi-media “Music Unwound” concerts. To my knowledge, Pacific Symphony this season becomes the first American orchestra to offer programming of this kind in multiple performances on the main subscription series.
The “Tchaikovsky Portrait” Peter and I created for Pacific Symphony last month began with a clip from Ken Russell’s subversive Tchaikovsky film The Music Lovers — accompanied by live music. There followed a biographical portrait of the composer: an impersonation by a stage actor, Nick Ullett, with visual accompaniment, hosted by Alan Chapman. By bringing to life Tchaikovsky the man, and his pertinent travails, we aimed to provoke a fresh intensity of personal engagement with the symphony, as performed on part two of the program. At each of four performances, more than 200 people stayed for 45 minutes to share their Tchaikovsky experience. Nothing like this had happened before at a Pacific Symphony concert. We also surveyed our audience, and discovered that 88 per cent felt “better equipped to appreciate classical music in the future.”
We raised the screen for the Pathetique Symphony performance Carl conducted. But this month’s Pacific Symphony American Composers Festival program kept the screen in play for the entire first half of a program celebrating “The Greatest Generation” — the New Deal and World War II. For Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, we projected “Friends and Family of Common Men and Women Who Accepted an Uncommon Call to Duty” — photographs of local war veterans submitted by subscribers. For Bernard Herrmann’s For the Fallen (commemorating the war dead), Jeff Sells of the symphony’s artistic staff assembled photographs of military cemeteries and ceremonies. For Kurt Weill’s Walt Whitman songs — his exceptional response to Pearl Harbor, setting “O Captain, My Captain” and three other Civil War poems — we projected the poems, and also four Matthew Brady photographs. The idea was to consolidate a sense of occasion.
I remain wary of visuals in the concert hall. I would not inflict them on, say, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (though I can imagine incorporating readings of Berlioz’s program), or on a Strauss tone poem (though super-titles for the Alpine Symphony seem to me a good idea).
The elephant in the room, of course, is the recession. Many orchestras, perhaps most, feel the need to retrench. For some, however, the exigencies of the present will impel artistic innovation: new roles for musicians (cf my Jan. 29 blog on the Memphis Symphony), new concert formats. It will happen. It is already happening.


  1. a curious reader says:

    i think that using visuals can be effective, but you cannot do it every time out — it becomes tacky, and plain annoying. I went to a concert of holst’s the planets and the orchestra had video/still images from nasa of the different planets that went along with the music. pretty effective. however i couldnt imagine coming back to see the sibelius violin concerto with images of finland behind the player -_-

  2. Or an animated video of polar bears dancing a polonaise to the last movement of the Sibelius concerto? I generally agree with the sentiments here about visuals at symphony concerts. There’s a trend of getting too literal, I think, and forgetting that our own imaginations can come up with pretty powerful mental images when listening to certain music. On the other hand, I saw and heard an amazing concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra a few years ago when they played various works by Philip Glass set to a lively progression of photographs by Franz Lanting. It worked very well. I know there are opinions about Glass, but maybe a lot of his music is suited to having accompanying visuals.

  3. JJ Abernathy says:

    I value your take on this timely subject. As our symphony orchestra is finalizing our programming for next season, this is a topic our board and artistic director frequently discuss. How much visual is too much? We have a first rate venue in our area called Tuacahn Center for the Performing Arts–subtitled “Broadway in the Desert,” an outdoor amphitheatre nestled against rugged red cliffs. They put on various Broadway musicals with lots of glitz and pizazz– and some believe we are competing with them for the entertainment dollar so we need to have more special effects in our programming.
    Ah–what is the balance?

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