Popcorn With That Beethoven?

By Brian McCreath

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Jan. 10

A few years ago, the Metropolitan Opera pioneered one of those “wish-I’d-though-of-that” ideas by sending out live performances of opera to hundreds of movie theaters around the world, and within a year, many other opera companies had followed along, to varying degrees of success. As a way to reinvigorate its audience, it makes lots of sense for opera, especially on the scale produced by the Met, with lavish production values and access to practically any combination of cast and singers it wants. And it doesn’t seem to have hurt the company’s box office; in fact, it may have had just the opposite effect.

But would the same success come to an orchestra broadcasting itself to movie theaters? Orchestras aren’t known for staging particularly interesting events from a visual perspective, no matter how attractive concert halls are architecturally. But maybe the right combination of orchestra and repertoire could inject a new perspective to the orchestra experience. I was curious, so I found myself on Sunday at the Showcase Cinema de Lux Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first movie theater broadcast, with Gustavo Dudamel, now in his second year as music director of the orchestra, conducting a program that included Slonimsky’s Earbox by John Adams, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. This being LA, glam hosting, complete with sometimes pleasant, sometimes annoying, and occasionally enlightening banter, was provided by Vanessa Williams.

To begin with, the orchestra sounded terrific. LA has built a stellar reputation over the last 15 or so years, with credit usually given to the previous music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. They can clearly take on whatever technical challenges might be thrown at them and not just navigate those challenges, but do so with excitement, precision, panache, and verve. And Dudamel (“The Dude”) was at his best: razor sharp, electric, and expressive. And all with that crowd-pleasing mop of hair on his head.

[Sidebar: If you didn’t know this already, Dudamel is really quite the story in the music world, as made abundantly clear in a recent program by Tavis Smiley. For the record, I don’t have a particularly strong opinion of him yet, but to the degree that he brings people to classical music who might not otherwise find themselves interested, he’s great. And his story, as dovetailed with that of Venezuela, really is compelling. His status as a great conductor is a true case of “time will tell,” but in the meantime, he’s someone with whom, I believe, anyone who cares about classical music should be familiar.]

I left the theater, though, with the feeling that this was the trial run of a concept that really hasn’t found its direction yet. Sure, it was fun to get extreme closeups of players as they un-self-consciously pulled off amazing feats of musical prowess (really, incredible things happen every week in orchestras across the country), and I guess I can consider myself lucky to have “been there” as The Dude slipped on his tails and walked down the hallway from his dressing room to the stage door.

But while Disney Hall (designed by Frank Gehry), with its cattywampus organ pipes and sweeping curves, is visually arresting, the experience was still that of an orchestra concert, which is to say, several dozen instrumentalists arrayed in a semi-circle playing music for an audience of people in seats while wearing … black. After the first half hour, it really didn’t add up to much, even after we got a few more shots at intermission of Vanessa Williams in a bright purple strapless number.

The major shortcoming was sound. Even with the most advanced surround sound system, with impressively delineated spatial qualities, it simply cannot equal the experience of sitting in a great concert hall, hearing and feeling a great orchestra. And as much as I love thinking about and playing with new ways to transmit the musical experience through evolving media, I’m actually heartened at this. I love the idea that live concerts of orchestra music, which have been going on for centuries, are still irreplaceable and essential.

None of which means I’m not rooting for the LA Phil and any other orchestra in contributing to that evolution. I hope they and others succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Here are a few ideas that, humbly, I think would contribute to that success:

1. Ditch the black. There’s no really great reason to stick with black tails/white bow tie/long black gown dress code in general, but there’s REALLY no reason to continue that practice when playing for people who came to the multiplex dressed in jeans and sneakers and who are probably enjoying popcorn while watching. I remember seeing The English Concert at Jordan Hall several years ago, and just by having the women wear a variety of coordinated single-color blouses (red, blue, orange, etc.), the experience was radically different.

2. Think through the host a bit more. I bet Vanessa Williams is a terrific person, and she might even be a big supporter of her local orchestra. But her presence didn’t really get beyond the Matt-Lauer-at-the-Macy’s-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade level. It needn’t be a musicologist, or even a music geek, but just someone who can offer a bit more depth.

3. Content, content, content. I thoroughly enjoyed all three pieces on the program, but I also wondered why I was hearing them. With the absence of the full orchestral sonic experience (as mentioned above), a greater premium is placed on why the audience should want to experience the event. Coherent, thematic programs that illuminate ideas beyond any individual part of the program, an approach that’s been gaining ground in general over the last decade and a half in orchestral programming, should be exploited to the max for the multiplex crowd. One potential model, or at least starting point, is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score series .

4. Make the experience last. A couple of months ago, I tried out the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, which is a webcast experience. Aside from being a much more polished presentation (which, to be fair, no doubt is due to the fact that Berlin has been doing this for two years now), my admission ticket included access for a limited time to the entire archive of previous concerts, including the one I saw and heard live. What if, as a ticket holder to the LA Phil’s theater broadcast, I had the chance to see and hear it again, along with other concerts, on the web or on my phone?

I’m interested to know if you’ve attended any of these kinds of events, either in movie theaters wtih the Met, the LA Phil, or another organization, or via internet, like Berlin. Could something along these lines work in Boston?  And for more reaction from around the country, visit NPR Music.

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