Grass Growing HD

Color me skeptical:

In a bold venture that the Los Angeles Philharmonic hopes will boost its “national brand” recognition and help raise the profile of classical music from Manhattan to Orange County, the orchestra next year will transmit live performances of three of its concerts to more than 450 high-definition-equipped movie theaters throughout the United States and Canada.

Under the new project, announced Monday, the Philharmonic will partner under an exclusive one-year contract with Denver-based NCM Fathom, the entertainment division of National CineMedia, and Cineplex Entertainment, which distribute scores of concerts, sporting contests and other entertainment events to movie theaters and other venues. Among their offerings is “Met Live in HD,” the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s season of big-screen simulcasts, which have drawn more than 2.4 million people since 2006.

Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s president and chief executive, said the project, called “LA Phil Live,” would be a “major step in establishing a national brand for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel,” the orchestra’s charismatic 29-year-old Venezuelan music director. But she acknowledged that the orchestra faces an inherently greater challenge than an opera company in making its productions visually — as well as aurally — compelling.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad that someone is trying this. And it has worked well for the Met, although my impression is that the Met HD simulcasts haven’t brought in audiences new to opera so much as existing opera nuts wanting to see more than they can where they live.

But I don’t think that it’s going to work so well for orchestras. To say that making an orchestra concert “visually compelling” is a “challenge” is really to understate matters. Orchestras – especially American orchestras, where musicians are not encouraged to be physically involved – simply aren’t visually oriented. Unlike the opera world, we don’t pick performers for physical attractiveness (except for some soloists and conductors), we don’t do anything to make ourselves look interesting, and we all try to be very economical in our motions.

But that’s not the only problem. Going to a movie theater to watch an event feels, to most people, like watching a movie – it’s hard to remember that it’s live and not Memorex. Are the LA Phil HD events going to feel like concerts, or movies? If, as I suspect, they’ll feel like movies, the production values will be judged by standards they simply can’t meet.

Compare, for example, Met HD productions with made-for-film opera productions. To my eye, the Met productions look rather pallid by comparison, without the sense of danger that’s created when audiences and performers are breathing the same air. Opera productions designed for TV or the big screen – such as the fabulous Magic Flute done by Ingmar Bergman for Swedish TV in the 70s – can do things with acting, and camera angles, and lighting that simply aren’t possible in productions designed for 4,000 seat opera houses.

I think the “tell” that this is not likely to work for orchestra is the fact that, unlike opera, no one’s ever tried to make a film of an orchestra concert for commercial release in theaters – or, if they have, they certainly didn’t sell a lot of tickets to it. To me that suggests that this is a product for which there’s no real market.

Apparently I’m not alone in being skeptical:

In a phone interview, Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, said that the Philharmonic “will have to work harder” than an opera company might to achieve a compelling visual presentation. He also cited the Met’s decades-long series of radio broadcasts in helping to build a substantial national and even international audience for its simulcasts — something the Philharmonic cannot claim.

Gelb predicted that the Philharmonic “will push the envelope” with its new series. “If they are seizing on an opportunity that others are not going after, they certainly have a chance of achieving success,” he said.

Sometimes a niche hasn’t been filled because no one perceived the opportunity. But sometimes the niche simply isn’t there. Thanks to the LA Phil, we’re going to find out which of these is true. And, all skepticism aside, that’s a good thing.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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