CSO’s summer opener with Bronfman upstaged by Ravinia’s Jumbotrons

Wed Jul 08, 2009 at 4:10 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

James Conlon opened the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s summer season Tuesday night at Ravinia.

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

8 Responses to “CSO’s summer opener with Bronfman upstaged by Ravinia’s Jumbotrons”

  1. Posted Jul 09, 2009 at 12:49 am by Drew Cady

    Sad that Mr. Johnson is blinded by his conservative appreciation of the classical arts. But surely he must realize that the stoic old ways of the classical orchestra demand new access and creative devise to gain new audiences. I believe another opinion is worth capture here. Perhaps you should interview Mr. Kauffman re. this? I suspect he has done his homework about what is working elsewhere in the orchestral world. This technique has been implemented with great success all over the classical world. Chicago is simply following a worthy trend. If Mr. Johnson simply cannot tolerate this video enhancement, then perhaps he needs some blinders upon his brow?

  2. Posted Jul 09, 2009 at 11:55 am by Harrison Boyle

    This ‘technique’ has certainly NOT been a ‘success.’ A questionnaire circulated to the patrons of Philadelphia Orchestra concerts included this notion, and it was NOT welcomed by any listener or musician I asked about it, not one.

    Turning everything into a TV show just because the technology is now cheap is a bad idea, and is motivated solely by marketing considerations. Marketers seem convinced that the younger generation is comprised of morons who cannot receive any kind of information without constant flashing and banging – seen any movie trailer lately without electronic thunder/explosion noises and visually irritating jump cuts every 10 seconds – even comedies and romance?)

    As recent 4th of July events remind us the reverse is also true – blaring enforced music over fireworks reduces the entire sky to a mere TV set. Let’s stop this now, before it is too late!

  3. Posted Jul 09, 2009 at 12:52 pm by Andrew E. Yarosh

    As a 55+ lifelong symphony-goer, opera lover and chamber music administrative professional I think this is a magnificent innovation, particularly in summer, outdoor settings like Ravinia. These venues are where many casual or first-time concertgoers “dip their toe” into our performances. If the field were to take Mr. Boyles curmudgeonly response as gospel, we have no chance of expanding our audience to people who are not like us.

  4. Posted Jul 09, 2009 at 2:44 pm by CJD

    Sad that Mr. Cady does not recognize an unsatisfactory solution when he sees one; instead he chooses to sow if-everyone-else-does-it-so-should-we FUD. Installing video to reach new audiences is about as creative as a wet paper bag.

    The issue has nothing to do with what’s conservative and what isn’t. The issue is: what’s the product Ravinia is selling? Anyone who’s been in a sports bar with twenty televisions knows how different that product is vs. oh, say the Old Absinthe House, for example. In this case the screens are a distraction and they’re precisely intended to be a distraction.

    But from what? If Ravinia is confident in the product it sells—and I suspect it is—then it should concentrate on forging an emotional connection between itself and its target audience. Video used in this manner is a highly suspect technique, not only because it significantly affects the product but also because it’s not exclusive.

    One should not confuse a lack of innovation with opposition to an idea that has significant liabilities.

  5. Posted Jul 09, 2009 at 8:32 pm by Marko Velikonja

    I’m with Mr. Johnson on this. I would find the video screens terribly annoying. And I’m not sure who Andrew Yarosh’s “people like us” are; surely lovers of orchestral music aren’t so monolithic.

    By all means, put the screens up for those on the lawn who can’t see the stage – I would have loved this when I attended Tanglewood concerts a few years ago – but what on Earth is the point of giving a video image to people who can actually see the live event? I might not avoid a concert that had these video screens, but they certainly wouldn’t encourage me to attend.

    Are those of us who oppose this old fuddy-duddies? Generally I’m totally for cutting-edge programming and novel presentation, but this one seems a horrible idea. But as a free market type, if Ravinia sells more tickets, who am I to object? Ravinia isn’t really the place to hear the great CSO at its best, anyway; if they did this at Orchestra Hall, it might be another matter.

  6. Posted Jul 10, 2009 at 8:19 pm by Harrison Boyle

    Let me assure Mr. Yarosh that there is nothing the least curmudgeonly about me. I am one of those concert-goers who is willing to wait an extra hour or more, standing the entire time on the cold slate floor of the Kimmel Center for an affordable ticket to a good seat the Philadelphia Orchestra. When, as recently, I find myself having to squeeze my eyes shut for the entire concert because a woman in my line of sight is ostentatiously fanning herself with the program, I am motivated to follow up on this discussion the problem of visual distraction.

    Mr. Yarosh has apparently spent long years in marketing opera companies, an endeavor that I, as a professional composer who has also worked in ‘development’, fully appreciate and admire. However the old saw about ‘if your tools is a hammer, every problem is a nail’ may apply here. Opera is meant to have a visual component, and we compose with that in mind. However – in orchestral concerts the visual is incidental – indeed the custom of dressing the orchestra uniformly has a lot to do with reducing visual distraction.

    Now, if the visual aspect is to be artificially amplified, why not the audio? And once that is electronic, why not just play a video of the whole thing? I know it is Mr. Yarrow’s quite difficult job to ‘market’ performances, but it is important to be ever vigilant about mere gimmicks. I am sure it is very frustrating, but you will surely lose more people by installing a JumboTron© than you will gain.

  7. Posted Jul 30, 2009 at 2:01 pm by Peter Powell

    Having attended Ravinia almost weekly for many years before moving to the Rockford area three years ago, I agree 100% that video screens are a truly dumb idea. The joy of Ravinia was sitting on the lawn as dusk settled in and the only lights were from the stage of the pavillion in the distance. Back in those days the lawns were mostly quiet and the sound of the CSO — even over the speakers — was special.

    When my wife and I moved away from the Chicago area, we thought we’d miss Ravinia. But that was about the time Sunday concerts were being moved from 7 p.m. to 5 p.m., which was a disaster not only for the heat of the day (yes, I was there on that Mozart 5 p.m. Sunday when it was about 104 degrees), but also because that ‘family friendly’ time was more about noisy kids than experiencing great music. Now that Ravinia has gone visual, the real magic of that place seems to be really gone — so I doubt if we will miss it after all.

    Out this way, we have a couple of summer venues that call themselves “Ravinia West” or something like that, with varied outdoor concerts in comfortable settings and with good sound systems. They may not really be anything like Ravinia as it once was, but they are fine for us now.

  8. Posted Aug 08, 2009 at 11:03 am by benjamin

    Talk about dumbing-down the audience for the sake of “saving classical music” at Ravinia!

    Most audience members mistakenly “listen with their eyes”. I’m a professional classical musician and while attending a Ravinia concert in the pavilion, even I had to remind myself to LISTEN as I drifted off into the seduction of the visual at the expense of the music.

    If I’m prone to that kind of thing, I can’t imagine what that instructs a less educated listener to come away with from a concert!

    But, as has already been noted in this comment section, follow the money. That attitude will lead to exactly the opposite kind of an impression of classical music and what it’s all about – the picture, not the music.


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