Now in Theaters: The L.A. Philharmonic

January 10, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Posted in Concerts | 1 Comment

Last night, I got to go my first concert of the L.A. Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Well, I wasn’t actually at the Walt Disney Concert Hall; I was in an AMC theater in Castleton, Indiana. Building on the success of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts, the LA Phil has scheduled monthly performances that are broadcast live to movie theaters all over the United States and Canada. Last night was their first one.

The music was, of course, outstanding, so there isn’t really much point in my giving any sort of musical critique. I just want to offer my impressions of the experience. But here’s what they played:

  • First up was “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” a piece written by John Adams in 1995 to memorialize Nicholas Slonimsky. (I wrote about Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Music Invective here.)
  • Second was Leonard Bernstein’s First Symphony, “Jeremiah,” which included vocals by mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor.
  • After an intermission came the concert’s centerpiece: Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Dudamel conducted this without a score.
  • The applause didn’t stop afterward, so they performed Brahms’s “Hungarian Dance No. 1” as an encore.

The price: I had a little sticker shock when I went in to buy my tickets. I was at a movie theater, expecting something in the range of movie theater ticket prices — maybe a little more. The price for a ticket was $22. If the idea behind these broadcasts is to expose a larger number of people to great classical music, this isn’t going to do it. It isn’t horribly difficult for a family of four to spend $80 at a movie theater, but that usually includes popcorn, candy, and drinks. So exposure to this concert is pretty limited to those people who can already afford to occasionally go to the symphony. I thought twice about buying tickets (money’s tight these days), but I did it.

The host: The broadcast was hosted by Vanessa Williams. I appreciate Ms. Williams’ involvement in and support for arts education, but her appearance here did little to enhance the performance. She ought to spend more time with her lines beforehand, too; she had more than a few vocal slip-ups during the course of the broadcast (including moiderizing the name Slonimsky). They might be able to save some money (and perhaps lower ticket prices?) by hiring a relative unknown who can do as good a job or better hosting the show.

Pre-performance discussion. Before each piece, Maestro Dudamel spoke (in his thick Venezuelan accent on a prerecorded video) about the piece — some history, some music theory, and some personal thoughts. He was personable, thoughtful, and at times funny. It was an enjoyable addition that really brought some personality to the performance.

The passion of the musicians: In college, my clarinet professor occasionally attempted to get me to be more still while I played solos — something about wasted energy. I was reminded of this especially during the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh: During loud and fast moments, what I took to be the principal violist attacked her instrument like she was stabbing a badger that had latched onto her neck. It was a little distracting watching this one player’s sometimes violent contortions, but on the other hand, she made other of the more reserved players look cold and mechanical by comparison.

Regardless of how you feel about a musician’s body movements when they play, this points to one important idea: The sounds of the music that one creates are infinitely more important than how one looks when one creates it.

End-of-concert questions: During the course of the concert, movie-theater patrons were encouraged to text questions to Maestro Dudamel. After the encore, when Dudamel had retreated offstage, Vanessa Williams asked him a few of them. (What kind of music do you listen to other than classical? Why are the celli in the middle of the orchestra? Have you ever come close to crying onstage while conducting?) This was a nice little interactive bit of the show, but it was just a short thing tagged on at the end.

I’m not saying that we should have been given more of the Maestro’s time after the show. That would just be mean. But they certainly got more questions than just those three. Perhaps Dudamel, between now and the next on-screen concert, could sit down in front of a camera and answer more of them , and those answers could be incorporated into future broadcasts? It would make the hosts’ job less important and bring more music education into the mix.

The video work: What’s so interesting about the ceiling of the Walt Disney Concert Hall? From the amount of camera time devoted to showing the ceiling, I would have expected something interesting or important to be there. (Not even a chandelier!)

A number of different camera positions were used during the concert, focusing on individuals and sections of the orchestra, the conductor, and the entire orchestra at once. This last camera would often start at the orchestra and then slowly pan up, all the way to the ceiling. I grant that the architecture behind the orchestra is interesting, but the camera really doesn’t need to go higher than that. If they’re at a loss for “new” camera angles, shots of audience reaction (especially if you can catch someone dozing off!) would be more interesting than shots of the ceiling.

Audience reaction: I don’t know yet that there is really a standard etiquette for attending a musical concert in a movie theater. A few of the patrons applauded. My first instinct was to wonder, “What’s the point? The orchestra can’t hear you!” Perhaps this music-lover was so filled with musical joy, though, they they just needed some way to express that, get it out of their system, and clapping seemed like an obvious way to do that. No matter how good the music was (and it was amazing), I didn’t see a point to clapping.

Speaking of the audience, is there a virus going around the LA area, or is coughing in a concert hall really that contagious? Maybe it was just because I was experiencing it in a new environment, but the amount of coughing in the audience seemed excessive. During the break between the second and third movement of the Beethoven, there were no fewer than two dozen coughs from the audience, as everyone tried to get their throat cleared before the orchestra started up again. I was laughing, it was so ridiculous.

Would I do it again? Going to a movie theater to see a performance of an opera makes sense: an opera is as much a visual art as it is an aural one. Although seeing the symphony in action while they play does add a little something that I wouldn’t otherwise get from a CD, it just doesn’t have the oomph that an opera has. And experiencing a live symphony broadcast in a movie theater still isn’t the same as hearing them live in the concert hall. These broadcasts will certainly increase their name recognition, and maybe even enlarge the LA Phil’s fan base for future CD sales, but I don’t think symphonic broadcasts will have the same effect as the opera broadcasts.

For my money, there just isn’t enough value added in these broadcasts to justify spending more than the price of a CD that I can listen to whenever I want. I likely won’t be returning. I will, however, take a second look at the Met’s opera broadcasts. <i>Nixon in China</i> is scheduled for mid-February, and hearing “Slonimsky’s Earbox” has piqued my interest once again in this great American composer.

Posted by Andy Hollandbeck

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