Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Losing Score

It has been almost a year since I participated in the 2007 "Bloggers' Night" at the San Francisco Symphony. While I responded to my invitation to this event with several posts about the performances that evening, I never mentioned that all participants were further rewarded with a modest element of swag, which included review copies of DVDs of the Keeping Score series that Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony had created for production by local PBS station KQED. I have never seen any of these programs broadcast. Truth be told, I have become very disappointed in what PBS has to offer in just about any subject area; and the local contributions from KQED are not much better. Nevertheless, I was curious about the project; but, in spite of that curiosity, the jewel cases gathered dust for about a year until last night when my wife and I decided to see what they had to offer, beginning with the "Beethoven's Eroica" broadcast. This seemed like an appropriate way to begin, particularly since we had heard Thomas conduct this work at Davies Symphony Hall last March.

That recent listening experience, however, made for an interesting and significant object lesson: The beauty of the "live" performance is that, like snowflakes, no two are alike. If they were alike, they would be little better than recordings; and, if that were they case, why should we bother to exchange our "virtual concert hall" for the real thing? Thomas is well aware of how the approach to performance changes from one occasion to the next, and he even talks about it when first introducing this work. However, as a result of that simple "principle of diversity," I found the "Beethoven's Eroica" presentation more than a little disquieting, because it felt too much as if Thomas were providing his viewers with a definitive perspective on what, in my own post, I called "The Ultimate Warhorse."

This observation then leads to my second observation, which is that there is too much talk and not enough music. Part of the problem is that this particular symphony is significant for its revolutionary approach to scale; and this poses a difficulty in presenting it, along with supplementary material, in a one-hour television program. The result is that we end up experiencing "significant excerpts," rather than the imposing whole ("Dear God, he's big") itself. Many years ago Kurt Masur worked with a British television production company to prepare recorded concerts of the four symphonies of Johannes Brahms. Each of those made for a one-hour broadcast; and Masur prepared his remarks to fill the space that was not occupied by the music. One might argue that this would be too little for a work as major as Ludwig van Beethoven's third symphony, but I doubt that anyone would claim that the details behind Brahms symphonies are any less than those behind Beethoven's.

This leads to my final observation: If the music is the most important part, how can the video do justice to it? Put another way, since it is virtually impossible to ignore a video signal (particularly if it is motion video), what can be done to make sure that the video contributes to the listening experience, rather than detracting from it? This is a question I have examined in previous posts. My primary regard is that many who read what I feel is the best answer to this question will regard it as ancient history:

I have always felt that this [skilled video production] was the "secret ingredient" that made Evening at Symphony on PBS such a triumph. All direction of camera shots was informed by the score being performed. This was such a serious matter that the camera crew would rehearse in Symphony Hall with a stage on which all the chairs were in the right place, each labeled with the name of the performer; and all the camera work would be executed against a recording of the performance. This whole process was the brainchild of Jordan Whitelaw, who supposedly once said, "If you don't see it, you may not hear it!" This is far from a trivialization of the listening process; it is one of the best strategies for cultivating that process. Of course it only works if it is properly executed; and, if it is poorly executed, it can do far more harm than good.

If Whitelaw's spirit remains with us at all today, it would be through the innovations that Barbara Willis Sweete has brought to videos of the Metropolitan Opera, apparently with the encouragement of general manager Peter Gelb. Sweete shares Whitelaw's keen sense of what it means for audiences to see the right thing; but she also has the advantage of working (by virtue of high-definition (HD) bandwidth) with far more sophisticated video management technology than WGBH was ever able to provide to Whitelaw. This was most apparent when she delivered a video product that caught all of the subtleties of the Met production of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and made them accessible (and perhaps more comprehensible) to all of us who could only attend the performance by watching it in a movie house. Alas, the few opportunities we had to see the San Francisco Symphony performing excerpts in "Beethoven's Eroica" were depressingly uninformative, particularly when assessed by the standards set by Whitelaw and extended by Sweete. This brings to mind the Annie Hall joke about the exchange between two old ladies staying at a resort in the Catskills:

"The food here is terrible!"

"Yes, and the portions are so small!"

No, the video work in "Beethoven's Eroica" is not as terrible as all that; but those of us who have been tracking the role that video can play in extending audiences for the performing arts know it can be much better.

This brings me to my final point, which is that, if we are to take the shortcomings of "Beethoven's Eroica" seriously, then we should also entertain the hypothesis that this production is more symptom than disease. In this case the "disease" (which I have also discussed in the past) is the growing neglect of the performing arts on public television. As I previously wrote, this is a "gap that cable cannot seem to fill," since it appears that every attempt cable has made to do so has come to a dismal end. Of course the problem may well be that the performing arts are just not particularly compatible with the culture of a "technological age," such as the one we are currently experiencing. Thus, while we may get no end of jawboning in favor of arts education, even when clothed in rhetoric about "the importance of arts to the future of the nation's competitiveness in a changing paradigm of global, economic, technical and social evolution and cultural change," that jawboning is unlikely to lead to much other than a few grants, which will probably go to the same old organizations that continue to get grants to do the same old thing. Just on the basis of the impact he has had on programming for the San Francisco Symphony, I have strong confidence that Michael Tilson Thomas would like to reverse this trend; but I do not see him getting the support he would need for such an endeavor. Without that support it is hard to imagine that future projects will be much more satisfying than "Beethoven's Eroica" was.

1 comment:

marcparella said...

Programming for a symphony orchestra may be the most political endeavor next to running a Home Owners Association. You are damn if you and damn if you don't. Programming has killed more conducting careers than bad conducting. If you want more adventurous programming, ask for it.