Archive Reviews

My Take on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Pioneering Live Simulcasts

The mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and the conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times

The mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and the conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times.

Orchestra Arrives on Big Screen

January 10, 2011   |   The New York Times

During orchestral concerts in traditional halls, many musicians are often hidden from view, heard but not seen until singled out by the conductor for a solo bow. But woodwind and brass players accustomed to performing in relative anonymity behind a shield of string instruments may have to get used to close-ups if live HD broadcasts like the one offered in movie theaters by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sunday afternoon become more commonplace.

Following on the heels of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD screenings, the first of three Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcasts featured Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra’s dynamic and telegenic young music director, conducting works by John Adams, Bernstein and Beethoven at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The performance was broadcast to more than 450 theaters in the United States and Canada.

Opera, theater and ballet naturally provide better visual fodder than a group of seated classical musicians in tuxedos. The most rewarding visual aspect of Sunday’s broadcast, which I saw at the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 in the East Village, was the chance to observe Mr. Dudamel at close range. In Disney Hall there is seating behind and to the sides of the stage, so audience members can see the maestro at work. But in most halls the audience stares at the conductor’s back while he or she communes in secret with the musicians.

Far less interesting were the endless close-ups of individual musicians; even more than on the small screen, it felt like a kind of orchestral voyeurism to watch the violinists diligently sawing away or the bassoonist’s cheeks puffed out at unflattering angles. Sometimes the camera operators, seemingly bored with filming the flutists for the umpteenth time, shifted to random and meandering shots of the ceiling.

When the cameras distracted from Mr. Dudamel’s superb conducting, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the vividness and depth of the surround sound, one advantage theater broadcasts can provide over home television. Purists might object that balance and volume are distorted, just as in the Met broadcasts it’s hard to discern the size of a singer’s voice. But movie theaters will afford different sonic experiences from those of concert halls, which themselves have wildly differing acoustics.

The decadent cinematic acoustics flattered the orchestra, which sounded terrific. Mr. Dudamel elicited vivid playing throughout, beginning with Mr. Adams’s “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” an energetic and virtuosic work inspired by Stravinsky’s “Chant du Rossignol.” For Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”), the mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, who stood in the middle of the orchestra, sounded radiant.

Best of all was the inspiring interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Mr. Adams, who was in attendance at the Union Square theater, described it as “a level of playing I haven’t heard from the L.A. Phil in that particular repertory.”

He felt honored, he added, that the Philharmonic would “launch such an adventurous and risky endeavor with a piece by a living composer.”

In addition to live backstage commentary, the broadcast featured engaging rehearsal footage and recorded interviews about the repertory. Mr. Dudamel, a magnetic stage presence, was charming and humorous throughout the broadcast, although he and Ms. O’Connor may have found it distracting to engage in casual banter with Vanessa Williams, the host of the event, only seconds before going onstage.

While the camerawork will no doubt be finessed in future broadcasts, the teething problems on Sunday were most apparent in the backstage excerpts. The awkward commentary and scripted questions from Ms. Williams, who seemed ill at ease, elicited chuckles from the cinema audience.

It has been noted that performing with the camera in mind is already affecting set design, costumes and staging in the opera world, as well as putting more pressure on singers to be slim and attractive. Staging and set design are less relevant to the orchestral world, although perhaps broadcasts might encourage orchestras to ditch the formality of 19th-century tails for contemporary attire. You could speculate that comely musicians might have an advantage if orchestral broadcasts become the norm. But even that seems unlikely, since many auditions are ostensibly “blind,” with musicians performing behind screens to ensure their anonymity.

In contrast to the many concertgoers who make a mad dash to the exits after a program, almost everyone in the large crowd at the Union Square theater, who had paid $20 a ticket, stayed to hear the encore, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 1.

As with the Met broadcasts, the Los Angeles simulcasts offer listeners outside major cities a chance to enjoy first-rate live cultural events. What remains to be seen, as in the opera world, is how people with access to both will pick a format.

Many listeners were enthusiastic about the HD experience. Patrick Burns, 24, who recently moved to New York from Los Angeles, said he had been “excited about seeing Gustavo, as you can’t go anywhere in L.A. without seeing a billboard of him.” He said he hadn’t heard Mr. Dudamel conduct in Los Angeles because of the high cost of tickets. He called the broadcast great, adding, “I’ve been to Disney Hall before, and of course it doesn’t have the same ring as hearing it live, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out.”

Mr. Burns’s friend Justin Scholl, also 24, said he had never been to an orchestral performance before. Now he wants to attend a concert at Lincoln Center.

A group of students from the Manhattan School of Music, who joked about their obsession with Mr. Dudamel, were also positive. One, Leah Claiborne, described the experience as “absolutely amazing,” adding that she enjoyed the close-up shots. Joshua Bavaro said he felt the Philharmonic broadcast had more “emotional impact” than the Met simulcasts.

But another listener, Justyna Szulc, found it “too loud and kind of overwhelming.” During the Adams piece, she said, “they were jumping from one person to another fast, and I couldn’t really focus on the music.”

“It was really distracting,” she added. “But I was happy with it. I would come back.”

Her friend Manuel Peña disagreed with her about the acoustics. “I was absolutely overtaken by it,” he said, “in a fantastic way.”

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