Orchestras Use New Video Technology, Courting a Younger Crowd

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Twenty years ago, orchestras began mounting large video screens in concert halls in an effort to woo younger listeners and reinvigorate the concert experience. Reactions were mixed. Some patrons enjoyed seeing close-ups of the players and conductor in action; others found them ruinously distracting.

The screens are still used in various concert formats but they're now being joined by a new generation of digital effects and video art – the kind often seen in Las Vegas spectacles or conceptual art installations.

Earlier this month, the Cincinnati Symphony staged a free outdoor concert in front of Music Hall, its 1878 landmark home, to celebrate the arrival of Louis Langrée as its new music director. Instead of a typical post-concert fireworks display, the orchestra hired Landor Associates, a branding firm, to turn the building's façade into a giant canvas for projected images and 3D animation, all choreographed to music by Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Strauss.

Landor used Architectural Projection Mapping, a sophisticated way of "placing" an image onto the features and contours of an object. It's previously been used on the face of the Guggenheim Museum and on a Trump hotel in Dubai, among other places. This event, dubbed LumenoCity, drew an estimated 35,000 patrons to an adjacent park over two nights to watch the display, 15,000 more than expected. Official videos of the concert are due out later in September though homemade videos can be found across the Internet:

Analog Music, Digital Effects

Even in some trying times for American orchestras – as costs rise, audiences gray and labor strife is common – Cincinnati is not alone in its flirtation with high-tech visuals:

  • Digital Projection Mapping has been used in concerts by the San Francisco Symphony and the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, a short-lived experiment from Google. The former ensemble hosted a gala event in which images were shaped by patrons' Twitter messages.
  • The Los Angeles Philharmonic will open its fall season on Sept. 30 with a concert featuring video installations by the artist Netia Jones, which will be projected onto the interior walls of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Jones has worked with a number of classical-music organizations.
  • The New World Symphony in Miami Beach is to open its season on Oct. 5-6 with a commissioned film by Tal Rosner to accompany Britten's Four Sea Interludes, which will be shown in its hall and beamed to a 7,000-square-foot projection wall on its facade. Other commissioned videos are planned throughout the season.

Steve Mason, the vice president of innovation at Obscura Digital, which designed the San Francisco and YouTube projects, said it's important for designers to understand the orchestra tradition before embarking on video-based projects. "The tendency of contemporary media is to be based on fast cuts and dopamine-releasing spectacle,” said Mason. By contrast, "symphonic performance is more contemplative," and thus any visual spectacle must not overwhelm the compositions. “You don’t want to distract people from losing themselves in the music.”

But Mason believes that visual accoutrements are not at odds with the symphonic experience: Orchestra concerts in the Baroque era would take place in opulent rooms with gilded embellishments. Halls like the Musikverein in Vienna were designed to please the eye and the ear. For the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial gala in 2012, Obscura created a projection to accompany the encore, John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

Successful video projects broadly depend on two factors: Suitable visual content and the technical coordination with the music. Obscura projected photos of San Francisco in Davies Symphony Hall, emphasizing the orchestra’s hundred-year connection to the city. Other orchestras have opted for more abstract, painterly images (not always successfully: Dallas Morning News critic Scott Cantrell once likened a concert with video animations to watching Lava Lamps or screen savers).

For the Cincinnati Symphony, a design team from Landor broke each piece into a series of visual cues that matched to specific moments in the music. With Ravel's Bolero, each of the 18 iterations of the theme corresponded to a new set of images. During the performance, associate conductor Robert Treviño sat with Landor creative director Dan Reynolds in a production trailer, giving verbal cues to fire each new series of images. Ten projectors beamed the animations onto the façade of Music Hall.

Costly Technology

The LumenoCity project cost just over $500,000, a nonprofit rate that was covered by a handful of symphony donors. While Cincinnati officials see this as an investment in future audiences, pointing to a broad-based audience that turned out, some are more skeptical. Drew McManus, an orchestra consultant who writes the blog Adaptistration, believes that audio-visual projects are often gimmicky and limited in application. “Who knows what technology will exist in 20 years that make any investment now a waste of money," he said. "If you want something more to watch on a regular basis while listening, go to the opera."

McManus adds the caveat that multimedia presentations can work if they are properly integrated, pointing to the Chicago Symphony's "Beyond The Score" series, which uses video montages to explain a well-known piece followed by a complete performance. There are also technical hurdles. Film projectors have noisy fans that can distract both audiences and musicians; attaining proper resolution in a dimly lit hall can be difficult.

Still, there is a growing acknowledgement that video can move beyond the mere play-by-play or "lava lamp" approach. New York Philharmonic officials have said that the planned renovation of Avery Fisher Hall should make it more hospitable to works like "A Dancer’s Dream," the theatrical telling of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and The Fairy’s Kiss, which combined puppetry and video and played to sold-out halls in June.

One model may be found in the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami Beach, which opened in 2011. Its first program featured Polaris, a work by Thomas Ades that featured an accompanying film by Tal Rosner, the video artist, projected on five overhead “sails” that serve as sound reflectors. The film, which featured sea, rocks and two mysterious women, was also beamed on the "Wallcast," an exterior wall overlooking a park where audiences can watch concerts for free. Visuals, music and architecture, in other words, are to be closely integrated. Below is a photo of the hall's interior and a short excerpt from Rosner's film.

© Rui Dias-Adios