When an Orchestra Gets It.
You probably follow the Tuxedo Revolt Blog because you support innovation in the performing arts. (If you don’t then you are on the wrong blog!). You probably also recognize that orchestras and performing arts organizations must work around the clock in order to come up with fresh audience engagement ideas. I talk a lot about how “good enough” or half-hearted efforts won’t cut it in today’s culture. If it doesn’t hit the bullseye of what modern audiences find accessible, then it misses the mark totally. I understand that is a rather harsh perspective. Yet, one of the greatest delights I have when I write posts for you is when I get to report on an organization who gets it right.
I just came off of a very busy week of playing in the Allentown Symphony Orchestra (Allentown, PA). I was doing a lot of commuting and performing which prevented me from writing. I knew as soon as I was able, I would write a post about the innovative performances in which I was able to play. “What made these performances innovative?” you ask. It was the use of original film to accompany Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique that I found so fascinating and effective. Steve Siegel, a contributor to the Lehigh Valley Morning Call said the following of the performance:
“There was something to intoxicate everyone at the Allentown Symphony Orchestra’s “Psychedelic Dreams” concert last weekend…With the added feature of a full-length surrealistic video accompanying the Berlioz, about as high-inducing as one can get, at least legally, at a classical concert…[ASO Conductor, Diane] Wittry’s video, projected on an enormous screen above and behind the orchestra, combined still and moving images that complemented the music marvelously without detracting from it in the least. Just as we hear the beloved’s theme throughout the work, first sweetly on violins and oboe and then, in gross caricature on a clarinet, we see her haunting image float before us, hovering through smoke and clouds. The film’s creative imagery included shots of instruments being played, eerily in synch with the actual score. There was a dizzying sequence of a spinning chandelier during the sumptuous “Waltz” segment, frightening views of a guillotine in the “March to the Gallows,” and a “Witches’ Sabbath” sequence haunted by blood-red skies and flaming skulls. Adding to the surreal effects were the faces of the ASO musicians themselves, which, illuminated only by light reflected off their sheet music – there was no stage lighting other than the lights from the music stands – seemed to hover above their instruments.”
From Siegel’s description, you can create an image for yourself of what the performance was like. I have to agree with his description, and add that the ASO musicians did a great job collaborating with the conductor to meet the unique technical needs of making sure that the music aligned with the film as planned. Symphonie Fantastique is an incredibly complicated work. I have performed it in the past and also have attended performances of the piece by major orchestras and never have I seen so much effort put forth by an orchestra and its artistic planners to ensure that the audience would be able to relate to the music. If you are a classically trained musician, then you probably know the story and origins of Symphonie Fantastique by heart. If you don’t or would like a refresher course, click here.
Modern audiences don’t have the patience or desire to read through a verbose narrative in their program notes. The ASO artistic team boldly realized and accepted the fact that their audience needed another way to experience the narrative Berlioz defined for his music. Film was the obvious choice, but the film’s content could have proven fatal to the impact of the performance. The ASO should be applauded for rising to the challenge to create a film that both provided a point of understanding and a loose framework for the narrative, but yet, was still abstract enough to allow room for much individual imagination in the minds of each audience member.
This is one element of programming that I haven’t spoken about enough. If you desire to tell a very specific story with your performance, it is your prerogative to do so. But for large works performed by many artists, or works that are best interpreted in a variety of ways by individual audience members (for example, orchestral music), you must leave room in your presentation so audience members can use their creativity and imagination to make meaning from the music. It’s a tricky process that takes trial, error, experimentation and refinement. This kind of creative experimentation is where so many arts organizations fall short on their promise to deliver dynamic performances to their audiences. It is in this experimentation and refinement that we begin to understand what our audiences need and want from us and how we can best deliver it to them.
If a regional orchestra like the ASO can be a trailblazer and go out on a limb with projects like this, then I ask– why aren’t we all? Truly, if we want to continue to fill our seats and perform our music or other art form for large audiences, then we have to keep our finger on the pulse of what our audiences need as well as what they like. We have to lose our fear of pioneering new experiences, or maybe I should put it another way. We should become afraid of what will happen to our art if we don’t learn how to connect with modern audiences.
To the ASO, I say a job well done. To everyone else, I say take notice.