I just did a feature on the use of visuals in classical music concerts. It’s published here.
I could have written so much more. I spoke to about six different people, and felt I was only scratching the surface. Then someone reminded me that blogs don’t have word limits. So here are some edited highlights from various interviews on the subject.
First up, Rory Jeffes, managing director of the Sydney Symphony.
It’s a relatively new trend which started in the US with orchestras looking to ‘enhance’ the concert experience. It’s partly a reaction to the entertainment rich culture that we have now, at home as well as outside; a way of trying to provide another element to the traditional concerts. First there were close-up images of musicians projected on screen, then that moved into devising programs of live performances with projected images, in a number of different ways.
One way is through stills, one is through is moving image and the third is through multimedia works that are actually created to go with the music. There are examples in what we do of all of those. We did a project last year where we did Holst’s The Planets and we projected NASA images of all the planets while we were playing it. We sold out three concerts of that and most people thought it was fabulous. Some closed their eyes and didn’t want the images because it got in the way of the music for them. But there’s no doubt that that additional element was extremely well received by a lot of people.
We’re doing quite a lot of work in [the area of movies]. We started with Battleship Potemkin and Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, which were silent movies which we then played a score to, and they were extraordinarily powerful. If I’m honest, I hadn’t expected them to be as powerful as they were. Battleship Potemkin was a score put together from Shostakovich’s music from the time, and it was amazingly powerful. Y’know, there is nothing like hearing 110 musicians on stage playing huge symphonic music. So to have that as the accompaniment to the film rather than the soundtrack was amazing.
We’re doing the second of the three Lord of the Rings movies this year. That crosses over into the area of the cinema experience. I think now with the incredibly fine home entertainment systems there is a theme of ‘is this a cinema movie, or one I can watch at home?’ In a way the presentations we’ve done with Lord of the Rings or West Side Story are almost the other end of the spectrum – these films with really incredible film scores – it’s just amazing to hear them live. Those all sell out. It is a different audience, but it’s a big audience. People love it.
The third way is to use multimedia as a way of providing and actually exploring a whole different interpretation of a piece of music. An example – Bill Viola with Philharmonia does an opera in concert, Tristan and Isolde, projecting on vast screens all around the hall. It was incredible. I think this is the real pinnacle of where technology and multimedia can add value into symphonic performances. I think you’ll see a lot more in the coming years. There are a number of other operas that that would work really well. For the large number of people who really enjoy classical music but also enjoy big spectacle that’s a hugely attractive way to go.
So is the traditional concert a dying form?
I don’t think it is. We’re doing four performances of Beethoven 9 this week and they’re all sold out. 11,000 coming to see that. if you get concerts right, in terms of the content and the repertoire, soloists, it is still extremely attractive. We’re growing audiences.
When I go to concerts where there are giant screens I hate that. You are being guided where you should look. I think that limits the experience more than often, rather than adds to it. In the same way, I’ve been to sporting events where you trek all the way out to Homebush then watch the giant screen. Why?
I find that with concerts. If you are actually in the hall I don’t look at the screens, I close my eyes. Music speaks in a way that is beyond images. It’s your own emotional connection with the music that is so powerful.
We will continue to explore and develop it and become more bold in what we do. You take a risk with it, just because the sheer presentation of the multimedia is a very significant cost. For me, don’t go half cock and produce something mediocre. Really go for the highest quality of production you can – really great sound, big screen, powerful projector. Otherwise people will go out and say “it’s not really a cinema movie, I could’ve watched that at home.”
Next up, Tim Calnin from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.