Melinda Bargreen | 11 DEC 2020
Symphonic music in the time of the pandemic is a curious and challenging endeavor. The very backbone of the concert world is the experience of great music performed live by expert, inspired musicians, in a hall designed to maximize the beauty and impact of live sound. Since today’s COVID realities make this impossible, can virtual concerts possibly fill the bill?
Yes, and better than one might suppose. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s current program, recorded in advance (not livestream) and available online for a month following the Dec. 10 premiere, features a lyrical and inspiring conductor in three attractive works of a scale suitable for today’s onstage realities. That means a reduced number of “socially distanced” players, most of them masked except for the wind players, whose aerosols are presumably contained by the plexiglass shields. (This seems a far healthier arrangement than that of some other orchestras, such as the Seattle Symphony, whose wind players simply slip aside their masks when they are playing, replacing them afterward.)
The ASO team does not merely stand there and let the cameras run. Instead, this filmed concert features imaginative and inventive video work, courtesy of director Hilan Warshaw, editor Devin Ray Smith, and a gifted team of cameramen, recording engineers, and editors.
It is clear from the opening of the concert that this will be no ordinary performance video. The camera lingers on a bright object that gradually comes into focus as the bell of a trombone, heard in the opening lines of Lauren Bernofsky’s stately, tonal Passacaglia for brass ensemble. Viewers see reflections in the body of the tuba, and closeups of the musicians’ faces and the score on one player’s stand. The individual instruments are highlighted as their passages occur, and the focus shifts often to conductor Nathalie Stutzmann’s expressive hands, as they shape phrase after phrase with clarity and urgency.
We all know what’s missing from a film presentation; what is interesting is what’s been added to the concert experience in this particular film. The camera’s eye meanders around the musicians, peeking at their scores, watching them breathe. Here is the left hand of the clarinetist; the bass player gripping the bow; the flutist spinning out an impossibly long phrase on a single breath.
There are other advantages. The video format places power in the hands of the observer: would you like to hear that cello solo again? How about the oboe entrance? Or the tricky tiptoeing in the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 finale? Or perhaps you’d like to pour a glass of wine? Or would you like to hear the whole symphony over again? Just click.
The video format also allows for extramusical enhancements. It was inspiring to watch the interview with Larry LeMaster, one of the orchestra’s longtime section cellists, discussing his retirement after 47 years (“It’s been a great joy”). This is a player who was hired by Robert Shaw in 1973, and who remembers going through “Checkpoint Charlie” to East Berlin in their landmark 1988 European tour.
The concert film itself gives the viewers an experience they could never get in a concert hall. In the performance of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, the camera zooms in as a bow tenderly traverses an instrument, and follows the musical line as it is passed back and forth among the sections and individuals. We look at a clarinetist expertly shaping a trill with fluttering fingers. There is face-on footage of Stutzmann and her eloquent hands. The cameras closely track the progress of the music and anticipate the solos of the orchestral players, always in the right place at the right time. (The players are all clad in black, but not in formal concert dress.)
The eye of the lens peers over the shoulder of the concertmaster for a view you’d never get from the audience. A far-off balcony camera shows the onstage videographers at work – they’re invisible to the video audience, except from this vantage point. The sound quality is surprisingly clear: you can hear the indrawn breath of the conductor before the downbeat.
And then comes one of the biggest differences from a live concert: an exquisite diminuendo leads to the final chord of the Wagner work, and then … nothing. No ovation. No applause, no roars of approval. It feels a little surreal.
The Beethoven symphony starts, with Stutzmann using a baton this time, in small, precise, punchy gestures. It’s a fleet, light performance with no exaggerations or distortions: this reading is about Beethoven, not about Stutzmann.
The Beethoven also gets some of the most interesting video work: camera angles hop between the oboe and the flute in their interchanges; the third movement begins with a view of the underside of a violin, and there are lots of close-ups of unusual angles of bows and timpani.
The musical values are even better. There’s a prevailing sense of fun, in a score that can sometimes sound pompous. Stutzmann starts the fourth movement with expertly negotiated, delicate opening passages, like the careful setup of a joke, leading to an exuberant finale.
And then there is silence. We’ll have to imagine the cheering crowds at home. ■