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NEW BOOK:
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Books and Culture

Heather Mac Donald
Classical Music Meets the Big Screen
The L.A. Philharmonic broadcasts a live concert into movie houses, with promising results.
1 February 2011

On January 9, the Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcast a live concert into 450 movie theaters in North America, becoming the first orchestra anywhere to do so. The main conclusion to draw from this venture, which will be followed by two more broadcasts this season, is that Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra’s 30-year-old Venezuelan conductor, really does deserve all the hype lavished on him. As a spokesman for classical music, Dudamel is, quite simply, adorable—unapologetically enthusiastic and seemingly unaffected by the media storm that has swirled around him since he climbed onto the Los Angeles podium two years ago. Yet the broadcast also unwittingly revealed the limitations of filmed orchestra concerts, which must be overcome if the full potential of this effort to spread Dudamel’s magic is to be realized.

The groundbreaking idea of beaming classical music live into movie theaters belongs to Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager. The Met started broadcasting live opera performances into theaters four years ago and now plays in 1,500 movie venues in 46 countries. Other opera companies have started live broadcasts as well. Movies and opera are a natural fit, since opera is highly theatrical. But the backstage interviews with singers fresh off the stage and other behind-the-scenes features are an equally compelling attraction of the Met broadcasts, giving movie audiences a real-time, candid relationship with the performers that even patrons in the opera house’s $420 Parterre seats do not enjoy.

The L.A. Phil movie broadcast also featured a heavy dose of backstage talk, almost exclusively with Dudamel. The backstage camera trailed him like a faithful dog; he greeted its constant intrusions with relaxed good humor. “Are you ready for the parTEE?” he asked the camera as he walked toward the stage door for his first entrance, donning his evening jacket. “Let’s go!” Asked what he does to prepare himself right before a concert—whether he kisses his cuff links as Leonard Bernstein allegedly did—he smiled beatifically: “NoTHEENG. You know the music. It’s all about the music.”

Dudamel’s observations about his program—John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox, Bernstein’s First Symphony, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony—had a charming directness. “I think Bernstein was an open soul. He gave everything. At the end of [his First Symphony], after all that you’ve been through, you arrive at this feeling of resignation—let it go, be peaceful.” On Beethoven: “He is not just the reference point of classical music; he is the master of us all.” His Seventh Symphony is “happiness. It’s the only word that I find perfect for this music.”

Such remarks may not constitute deep musical analysis, but the urgent necessity for classical music today is to attract more listeners into its orbit, not to add another learned treatise on harmonic structure to the existing trove. If Dudamel’s patent love for serious music can convince more people to open themselves to what seems like an alien language, he will have provided a service to civilization. In a promotion for one of the upcoming broadcasts, Dudamel conveyed the joy of music-making in typically down-to-earth terms: “Orchestras love to play [Brahms’s Fourth Symphony]; conductors love to conduct it. It’s a big, melancholic, romantic work. I hope you enjoy it, because we’ll be having a good time.” Refreshingly, he doesn’t attempt to pander to today’s pop music dominance. The L.A. Phil had invited movie viewers to tweet questions to Dudamel during the concert, one-upping the Metropolitan Opera in new social-media applications. One viewer asked what other genres he listened to. “Salsa . . . merengue,” he began—but then the gravitational pull of the classical tradition proved overwhelming, and he continued: “Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler,” before a desultory concluding reference to “pop music.”

The L.A. Phil’s first mistake of the broadcast lay in its choice of backstage hostess: Vanessa Williams. Out of her depth as a classical-music guide (she initially referred to Dudamel as the orchestra’s “concertmaster”), Williams displayed a painfully cloying faux-Hollywood bonhomie, complete with air kisses, that dragged the broadcast’s tone toward Oscar-night kitsch. She initiated an agonizing series of jokes about the nature of the clear liquid that Dudamel quaffed every time he walked offstage. Oddly, she didn’t even have the on-screen wiles that might have made up for her musical ignorance, instead appearing transfixed by the camera and unable to take her eyes off it.

But the selection of Williams paled in comparison with the management’s inexplicable stumble in directing how the concert would be filmed. Once Dudamel left the cramped backstage area and walked to the podium, the camera suddenly forgot that he was the only reason that movie audiences had come to the theater that day. Rather than concentrating on Dudamel’s conducting, the camera focused overwhelmingly on close-ups of individual musicians. It darted dizzyingly from one face to another, punctuated by the occasional upward swoop to Disney Hall’s sculptural ceiling. But a close-up of a symphony musician conveys nothing essential about the music being performed. His facial expressions are inadvertent, the product of physical exertion in producing sound, rather than an intentional registering of emotion. Even when the particular musician has been selected because a melodic line is emanating from his section of the orchestra or he is performing a brief solo, the incessant close-ups impede a listener’s understanding of a piece rather than expand it.

The challenge of turning music into film is much greater for a symphony concert than for an opera, since the visual elements of an orchestra performance are muted and the deliberate theatrical elements missing entirely. Thus the temptation to create false visual drama by an obsessive attention to an oboist’s fingerings or the intricate design of a French horn. (Rock concerts are obviously much more theatrical and thus camera-friendly, as Stop Making Sense, the great Talking Heads movie directed by Jonathan Demme, demonstrates.) Yet there is inherent drama in a single individual’s standing alone before a large body of musicians and trying to realize his understanding of extraordinarily complex music. Hector Berlioz captures that drama in a characteristically brilliant letter to Liszt contained in his Memoires:

With what ecstasy [the composer-conductor] abandons himself to the delights of “playing the orchestra!” How he hugs and clasps and sways this immense and fiery instrument! Once more he is all vigilance. His eyes are everywhere. He indicates with a glance each vocal and orchestral entry. His right arm unleashes tremendous chords which seem to explode like harmonious projectiles. At the pauses he brings the whole accumulated impetus to a sudden halt, rivets every eye, arrests every arm, every breath; listens for an instant to the silence—then gives freer rein than ever to the harnessed whirlwind.

When the conductor in question already has a following, the refusal to let movie audiences bask in his power is all the more puzzling. The one decided advantage that a moviegoer has over a concert attendee is being able to see what ordinarily only the orchestra members can see: the conductor’s face and every gesture as he communicates with his players. The Unitel television videos from the late 1960s of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler’s symphonies understood that fact and rightly highlighted the conductor’s Romantic persona. In future L.A. Phil broadcasts, the production crew should give the audience what it came for: a full-bore Dudamel experience. To convey the dynamic relationship between the conductor and the music, the crew might experiment with a few split-screen shots juxtaposing Dudamel and the players he cues. And though panoramic views of the entire orchestra apparently strike the producers as dangerously static, they are not, but rather indicate the scale and glory of a symphonic gathering. A little more calm from the camera would be a decided relief. Whether such changes will make movies of symphony concerts sufficiently interesting to sustain demand over the long run remains to be seen.

It’s easy to take for granted the greatness of such monumental works as Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. But a performance as energetic and passionate as the one that Dudamel led reminds us yet again of the astounding range of mood and emotion of these cornerstones of the repertoire (especially, and mysteriously, Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies, which possess a profundity even beyond the rest of his orchestral output). It was possible to quibble with certain aspects of the performance—I have heard more achingly poignant interpretations of the symphony’s Allegretto movement (currently playing a key supporting role in the movie The King’s Speech), with more sinuously stretched out melodic lines. The coordination among the different voices in that movement seemed at times a little ragged, though Dudamel interestingly brought out some contrapuntal writing for the strings that is ordinarily submerged beneath the winds. The fourth movement (which Dudamel rightly called “one of the most amazing movements in the history of music”) was wonderfully propulsive, with cannon blasts from the timpani, but Dudamel’s occasional tendency toward abrupt changes of tempo and exaggerated rubato may puzzle some listeners. But such interpretive disagreements are beside the point. If these broadcasts attract a new audience for classical music, it will be because they have captured Dudamel’s charisma and the magnificence of the repertoire he performs, not because his are necessarily the definitive performances of those works. At this stage in his career, Dudamel may not be the greatest conductor working today, but I would venture that his is the most radiant personality—currently a more important asset for building future audiences.

Dudamel’s ethnicity is obviously a significant element of his appeal, especially in light of Los Angeles’s majority-Hispanic population. This is one area where multiculturalism has no downside. It will be a great plus if Dudamel brings more Latin American music to the public (though we don’t need any more of the already overexposed Argentinean neo-tango composer Astor Piazzolla), as he did in the L.A. Phil’s gala opening concert this year. Maybe his Latin identity can even inspire more of the Hollywood elite to support the L.A. Phil’s educational programs—modeled on the Venezuelan music-training system for barrio students that nurtured Dudamel—instead of such pathetic efforts at “relevance” as an upcoming exhibit on graffiti at Disney Hall’s neighbor, the Museum of Contemporary Art.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the reaction to the initial broadcast was positive. Attendance was highest in Southern California, where several movie theaters sold out or came close to doing so. (Theaters in the Midwest and Canada had smaller audiences.) Parents and schools should be jumping at the opportunity provided by these and the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts to expose children to classical music in a familiar setting. But scandalously, the audience for the Met broadcasts consists almost exclusively of older adults. The L.A. Phil broadcast that I attended in Irvine had more children in attendance than the Met movies do, but still nowhere near as many as there ought to be.

The orchestra has its work cut out for it in spreading classical music’s reach. When I asked at an Irvine movie theater for tickets for the Los Angeles Philharmonic concert the next day, the young girl at the window said that there was no such item on the schedule. What about for Gustavo Dudamel, I asked. Nope, she said, looking puzzled. The only special show the next day, she informed me, was “Bedouin.” I left disappointed, only to discover once I got home that the theater was in fact showing the Philharmonic concert. I then realized where the confusion lay. If the L.A. Phil broadcasts can help a few more young people not just pronounce but even recognize “Beethoven,” they will be an enormously worthwhile endeavor.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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