'All-Star Orchestra,' a Made-for-TV Symphony, Hits the Airwaves

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It’s the age-old problem of putting symphony orchestras on television: they're not as much fun to look at as to listen to. Anyone who has seen a few too many close-ups of an oboe player fiddling with a reed or a trombonist emptying spit from their slide can attest to the medium's limits. And yet, at a time when orchestras are grappling with how to reach new audiences, TV has a particularly enviable reach and immediacy.

Recognizing this, the conductor Gerard Schwarz devised a project that he believes will take advantage of television's potential. Called the "All-Star Orchestra," the eight-part public television series features a pick-up ensemble of leading professional musicians from across the U.S. performing a mix of core classics and contemporary American works, all accompanied by interviews and educational commentary. The hour-long show debuts in the New York area this Sunday (on WNET at 12:30 pm and on WLIW at 3 pm).

Unlike traditional concert telecasts, where camera operators have to be careful not to interfere with audience sightlines, the "All-Star Orchestra" was designed as a broadcast product from the start. Nineteen HD cameras captured the ensemble in tapings at the historic Grand Ballroom at the Manhattan Center on West 34th Street in August 2012. No audience was present, only cameras on booms, a camera dolly for tracking shots and several tiny GoPro cameras trained on individual musicians.

"I wanted the audience to feel as if they’re sitting in the oboe section or in the horn section, or standing next to me," said Schwarz, a seasoned conductor who was music director of the Seattle Symphony from 1985 to 2011. "I wanted them to feel the energy and the excitement of these great players – and in a different way than you can at a regular concert."

Audio: Schwarz tells WQXR about his idea for the "All-Star Orchestra"

Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Half of the All-Star Orchestra's 95 musicians are drawn from the New York-area orchestras: the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, Orpheus, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and New Jersey Symphony. The others were flown in from groups around the country including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, National, Pittsburgh and Seattle Symphony Orchestras.

The show's name riffs on the Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, and the ensemble's wide geographic representation was partly a strategic effort to entice PBS affiliates to pick up the series, knowing that local talent would be represented. So far, just 17 out of some 365 public television stations nationwide are carrying the series. Broadcasters in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Pittsburgh are said to be interested and still confirming dates.

Julie Anderson, an executive producer at WNET, which is distributing the series, says she's been happy with the response from PBS affiliates. "We were excited because, surprisingly, a lot of the local stations were interested in taking the whole series,” she said, noting that a roll-out of just two or four shows had been discussed. A second season is planned for production sometime next year.

Anderson said WNET initially green-lit the show because of the way it provides in-depth contextual information about classical music without being didactic or preachy. In the second episode, for instance, Schwarz, along with scholars like Michael Beckerman of New York University and Leon Botstein of Bard College, dissect the famous themes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in a 10-minute segment (see below).

"By the time you get to the actual piece, you’ve been instructed through the emotional swells of it," said Anderson. "You are able to really understand it in a better way.” (An adjunct educational website is planned and the full series will be released on DVD in mid-October.)

Each episode includes 46 minutes of music, including a sampling of contemporary American works by composers such as Joseph Schwantner, Philip Glass, Augusta Read Thomas and Bright Sheng. The producers considered offering more heavily produced modules – not unlike those in Michael Tilson Thomas's award-winning "Keeping Score" PBS series – but they had to stay within a modest $2 million budget. Besides, added Schwarz, "in the end, we decided, you have to trust the music."

Television Experience

Schwarz admits that orchestras and television have been criticized as an unholy alliance – a visually static art form in a medium that thrives on constant activity. But there is also a potential for great impact, as with the early "Omnibus" series, which put Leonard Bernstein on TV in the 1950s. When Schwarz began his career as the New York Philharmonic's principal trumpeter during the 1970s he played on the first-ever broadcast of “Live from Lincoln Center,” a series that continues today, along with "Great Performances," another PBS stalwart now starting its 40th season.

Unlike those venerable programs, which emphasize the live experience, the “All-Star Orchestra” is a television concept. Quick edits were employed and the ballroom stage stresses intimacy over concert-hall grandeur. Men performers are outfitted in dark suits and matching striped ties instead of the formal white tie and tails.

Jerry Grossman, the All-Star's principal cellist who holds the same job with the Met Orchestra, says the presence of so many cameras "added another layer of anxiety" during the filming. But the gathering of many high-profile musicians on stage served as an inspiration. "We all wanted to present ourselves in the best possible light for our colleagues,” he said. "It was very intense."