CSO’s summer opener with Bronfman upstaged by Ravinia’s Jumbotrons
Conductor James Conlon opened the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Ravinia season Tuesday night with just the right program to provide an enjoyable summer evening. Mendelssohn’s bicentennial year was marked with his spirited Symphony No. 1. And, in a magisterial performance of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, Yefim Bronfman deftly balanced power and poetry, showing once again why he is the leading exponent of this work today.
Unfortunately, the superb live performances were largely pushed into the background by the Ravinia Festival’s simultaneous video transmission. In a grievously misguided attempt to broaden the classical concert experience, Ravinia has installed two 15 x 20-foot screens on either side of the stage, where simultaneous video transmissions are projected a la pop events and Andrea Bocelli stadium concerts. The video projections, used for one weekend last year and inaugurated in June as a permanent fixture, will be standard for all of this summer’s pavilion performances, including all classical and CSO concerts, a Ravinia spokeswoman said.
Ravinia CEO Welz Kauffman is a dynamic individual and a smart guy. But let’s not mince words. This initiative is a bad idea—a very bad idea.
In its attempt to “open up” the traditional classical event, the video simulcast only serves to cheapen the concert-going experience, making it less appealing and, to be frank, irritating as hell. At the Met, one can turn off the translations on the chair-back in front, or, at the Lyric Opera, elect not to look up at the surtitles on the proscenium. However, with the vast scale and placement of Ravinia’s video screens and their constant whooshing motion, there is no way anyone can “opt out.”
Every audience member at Tuesday night’s Chicago Symphony opener was made an involuntary participant in an interactive video assault of images, gliding pans and jarring close-ups of musicians. This nonstop visual nudge-nudge-wink-wink is like sitting next to some oaf at a play who loudly persists in telling you things you don’t need to know.
A case can be made for installing video screens on Ravinia’s lawn where picnickers cannot see the musicians inside the pavilion (though hearing the unseen performers under the stars is a large part of Ravinia’s tradition and charm). But, why in God’s name, subject everyone sitting inside—where most have a decent view of the living, breathing participants— to an enormous, intrusive video of the performance alongside the actual, clearly visible event?
The bombardment of images makes attentive listening almost impossible, and encourages visual distraction. No matter how much effort one musters to concentrate on the music being played by the live performers, the dizzying slow pans, violent jump cuts, and sudden close-ups—and on Tuesday, missed camera cues and focusing on air or the wrong players—are impossible to block out. The summer tuxes and Conlon’s sudden podium motions add to the sense of visual disruption, morphing into massive white blurs in one’s peripheral vision.
I don’t believe most people attend a classical concert to be assailed with unwonted visual irrelevancies, like a violist’s unpressed tux, a violinist’s too-tight blouse or Bronfman’s hair. Tough luck for those who came to the concert just to experience the CSO, Brahms and Mendelssohn
Conlon, Ravinia’s music director, led a vigorous and lively reading of Mendelssohn’s First Symphony. Written at 15, the work has its derivative qualities, including Mozart and Beethoven as Conlon noted, though I heard more of Carl Maria von Weber than either. The performance would have benefited from lighter textures and a more quicksilver touch at times, yet Conlon and the orchestra provided fine advocacy for this early work.
Such was the artistry of Bronfman and the sterling support of Conlon and the CSO that it partly mitigated the visual bombardment and allowed one to concentrate on the music in Brahms’ concerto. The Adagio was particularly fine with Kenneth Olsen contributing burnished, understated cello solos, and Bronfman poised and rapt in his interaction with the orchestra.
Perhaps in time one can learn to tune out the video or drink the Kool-Aid and become accustomed to this MTV-ification of the classical concert experience. But I doubt it. So much contemporary pop calls for music-video flash, quick-edit dancing and assorted stimuli to distract one from the fact that the music isn’t very good. Brahms, Mendelssohn and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra don’t require such pointless “enhancements.”
Posted in Performances