Since the architectural ensembles of cultural edifices?opera houses, theaters, museums?that construct prestige in the barren downtowns of many American cities often resemble malls, it is probably not surprising that the performing arts themselves are now trying to establish beachheads in suburban American multiplexes.
The first wave to come ashore a few years ago was the swashbuckling Metropolitan Opera with its Saturday afternoon simulcasts, casts and crews well-armed with spears and swords and high Cs. These Met shows make for a pleasant way to spend several hours in the dark, guzzling Sprite and popcorn, wallowing in the surround sound, and staring up at the operatic spectacle playing out on the big screen. More than a little of the simulcasts’ allure comes from imbibing such grand entertainment while ensconced in steeply-raked, drinkholder-equipped seating in a hideous piece of public architecture in the midst of an endless sea of asphalt, where you can park your SUV for free. Opera at the mall marks the democratization of a cultural form invented four centuries ago for princes. The multiplex lays high culture low.
Last Sunday evening the Los Angeles Philharmonic became the first symphony orchestra to join the simulcast invasion. The dashing commander that led this new assault on the multiplexes of America is the young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan phenom who took over as LA’s music director a year-and-a-half ago and is still just shy of his thirtieth birthday. Dudamel is a supercharged Classical Energizer, who loves the camera and music. If anyone can fill the seats at the mall for a simulcast symphony concert, it’s Dudamel.
Even more celebrated than the media maestro is his orchestra’s architectural home?Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, with its frolicsome titanium-clad exterior, its much-lauded acoustics, its lavish interior with downward billowing ceilings, its stage surrounded by audience, and its higgledy-piggledy organ fa?ade whose cartoonish whimsy might even make one think that Goofy put the thing together after misreading the instruction kit. That’s not to say I don’t like the way that exuberant organ looks or sounds. But when fantasy is let loose in the Mouse House, the mind has a tendency to conjure animated hijinx.
In spite of this impressive arsenal of high-culture fire power, a symphony concert is fighting a steeply uphill battle against opera for the eyes, ears, and wallets of the multiplex-goers: opera is a visual entertainment as much, if not more, than it is an aural one. Operas were the Hollywood blockbusters of the pre-movie era, a fact confirmed by the Romantic, often operatic, scores of silent films and, later, the sumptuous soundtracks of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The operatic origins of cinema also help explain why, for example, it’s so easy to imagine such a monster as Birth of the Nation: the Opera?that beast was already a kind of opera on screen when D. W. Griffith fathered it.
There is long and sedate tradition of showing symphony concerts on television, in which some sense of movement or action is engendered through visual orchestration?cutting to closer shots of the timpanist when he let’s loose at the beginning of Also sprach Zarathustra or showing the flute in the relevant passages of Debussy’s Pr?lude ? l’apr?s-midi d’un faune. But this movement between cameras only serves to hammer home the fact that the players are stuck to their seats.
More visually persuasive, however, is the technique of directing attention to the most physically demonstrative member of the orchestra?the conductor. He (or rarely she) also happens to be the only one who’s not actually making any sound. Rather than merely watching his back we get to see?like those audience members behind the stage at famous halls like the Philharmonie in Berlin and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and now, Disney Hall in Los Angeles?the conductor as if from the stage. Viewed from the front, the conductor’s movements, and especially his facial expressions, interpret the music not only for his musicians but for his viewers. On screen, arguably the conductor’s most important job in performance (as opposed to rehearsal) becomes much more obvious?he is musical mime not just for his orchestra, but, more importantly, for his audience.
The LA Phil simulcast began at 5pm Eastern time?a strange, in-between moment in the day for a concert, not a matinee as it was on the West Coast, and not an evening affair as it would have been in all those multiplexes in Greenland. That departure from the scheduling rituals of concert-life might help explain, or at least provides my lame excuse for, being late to the show. Dubious as I was of a symphony concert simulcast, I’ll admit that as I waited in line to get my ticket I scanned the electronic display of showtimes: bets were being hedged, especially in the direction of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which started at 5:10. With the previews that would give me the chance to give Dudamel and the Angelinos sufficient screen-time either to prove the merits of their undertaking, and then, if deemed necessary, allow me to bail out for the adjacent cinema and a real movie with plenty of music by that most cinematic of composers, Tchaikovsky. A close cousin of channel-surfing, cinema-hopping is democracy in its purest, most self-serving form: you get what you want by voting with your feet.
The opening piece on the LA program, American composer’s John Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox, was just underway with all its frenetic energy when I entered at the back of Cinema 11. The malling of the symphony concerts also grants to ticket-holders a privilege once reserved only for those with private boxes: waltzing in after the music has started. In contrast to the packed houses for the Metropolitan opera Saturday afternoon simulcasts, there were perhaps a couple dozen viewers spread out in the upper section of the cinema. I slid into a seat down front with no one within thirty feet of me. Whether movie house or concert hall, an empty auditorium dampens the festive spirit so often crucial to the success of live music. The distance between performers and audience is already a vast one geographically and emotionally, when heard and seen through the one-way portals of screen and speakers. The leaden atmosphere and acoustics of an underpopulated multiplex cinema with its carpet and empty plush seats soak up not only the surround sound, but also the crucial vibrancy of performance.
A Stravinskian tribute to Adam’s friend, Nicolas Slonimsky, the editor of the essential Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, the Earbox chugs along with tremendous verve like that of its dedicatee, who died in 1995, the year before Adam wrote the vivid and durable tombeau in his memory.
Up on screen Dudamel keeps precise beat and watchful eye over his players. He seems to be barely suppressing his famous grin. The driving rhythms seem to pulse from within him. Adam’s work is a perfect vehicle to ride forth into the malls: Dudamel stands atop the careening thing, optimistic and eager, but with dignified reserve that registers expertise and connoisseurship. Dudamel is more than simply enthusiastic; he’s got technique and knowledge. He knows in the score and what he wants from it.
The high definition cameras capture the diminutive conductor’s instrument?his body?in all its liveliness and extreme detail. The eyes are possessed by the music, the pursed lips hold the line of the furious tempo, then tighten to a wary smile. The elegant manicured fingers of his left hand dance in front of him, withdrawing towards his chest in calming flatness, or clawing upturned as they plead for more intensity from the orchestra, the usually concave arc of the thumb curving inward to stretch the skin of the knuckle.
You can make out the texture of Dudamel’s eyebrows as they nudge the music forward, acknowledging unexpected rhythmic turns and harmonic shifts. Even Dudamel’s high-def dimples conduct, narrowing into serious furrows to keep the tumultuous lines of Adam’s music in rhythmic lock-stop, then rounding radiantly as the music shimmers in the sunlit arcadia of the piece’s middle section, before straightening again to unleash the dash to the finish.
The baton seems merely a prop, an ivory contrast to the lush blackness of his tailcoat and the gravity-defying excellence of his Jheri-curls parted at the top of his forehead and slanting down over his ears. It is a hair-do that surpasses the exuberance of the mop of his silver-topped mentor, Simon Rattle. The camera verifies the finery of the gold-threaded monogram on Dudamel’s French cuffs: the exquisite orthography of the GD merits inspection.
Given Disney’s classic animated Fantasia (which began with conductor Leoppold Stowkoski in silhouette) and that concept’s updating a decade ago with Fantasia 2000, we cannot be far from a new animated superhero and savior of classical music: Conductor Dude, armed with great hair and a baton loaded with thunderbolts.
The LA simulcast’s visual worship of the conductor is interleaved with sometimes sensible, but more often arbitrary shots of individual players in the orchestra. The precision of the images is startling, even when blown?up far larger than life on the screen: the unusual black-and-white checkered purfling of a violin; the similarly patterned temples of the designer eyeglasses of one of the bassoonists; the very notes of the music the pianist reads from. Reality never looked this good.
At seemingly random moments, the camera jumps to a view of the ceiling and pans slowly down folds that bring to mind a cavernous Bedouin tent. At last our gaze alights on the miniature figures in the orchestra sawing away in front of their antic maestro, the furious activity in stark contrast to the immobility of the audience, and all of it dwarfed by the hugeness of the hall.
Back in the multiplex the sound rockets around me: the specificity and clarity of the visual and aural information bombarding me is distracting and disorienting. Like the images on screen, the sonorities are too close, and too present, yet strangely far away and disembodied, the music abstracted from the synchronized actions of the players. That the screen shows in utter clarity and exactitude the symphonic spectacle only makes my separation from it all the more apparent. The simulcast has given me everything but performance, all the signs but none of the substance.
Whereas in opera screenings the union of music, action and scenery have persuasive power that that is cinematically convincing, the LA Phil has seemingly wandered into the wrong venue, like a string quartet at hockey game. No amount of offstage banter and infectious Dudamelian panache can overturn the fact that the live orchestra simulcast is dead on arrival at the multiplex.
With Dudamel taking his bows after Slonimsky’s Earbox, I’m on my way already to Black Swan. I’ll tell you next week why I made the right choice.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org