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Friday, October 23, 2009

Keeping Score: Episode Two

I was plugged in, pumped up, and ready to go.

My 5.1 surround-sound tuner was online and receiving audio feed over a direct fiber-optic link from a port on the Verizon FiOS cable box The audio signal originating from PBS was clear as a bell, and the picture quality was in HD.

I had been looking forward to the experience. Imagine, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) was about to be transported through the magic of technology right into my suburban living room. Performing in Davies Symphony Hall, the sound and visuals of the program would be realized right before me with digital clarity and holographic realism. The scheduled performance would be a work by a composer near and dear to me - Charles Ives - and I had front row seats. Wow.

Now in it's second season of presenting musical portraits, the SFS has gotten into the business of providing content - big time.

In 2006, more than five million people viewed three Keeping Score episodes on PBS. Each program was dedicated to a significant of a composer: Ludwig van Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky, and Aaron Copland. I found it to be well-performed and enjoyable. Overall the music was balanced with just enough explanation and historical background to keep the series interesting without beating anyone over the head with "must know" facts.

The Keeping Score programs are available commercially in streaming media from, iTunes, Xbox, and on DVD and Blu-Ray. Of course, it will be available as a companion concert recording in CD audio format. One would assume that Keeping Score is a profitable venture for the SFS, which like most American orchestras, is under constant economic stress. It also enhances and defines the SFS brand name, and keeps MTT in the national spotlight too.

The SFS seems to view this series as an outreach educational program. Their press release reads, "Keeping Score is the San Francisco Symphony’s national project to make classical music more accessible and meaningful to people of all ages and musical backgrounds, and a key component of its almost century-long commitment to music education."

The latest show, Keeping Score: Episode Two, is dedicated to the American composer Charles Ives and his Holidays Symphony. It's packaged as a kind of sonic portrait of Ives' early 20th century New England, and includes visuals to support the background story of the composer.

This all sounds great, but after experiencing the program, I had some serious reservations. Frankly, I was outright disappointed.

What went wrong?

First, there is something odd about seeing and hearing an orchestra perform in an empty concert hall. It lacks the excitement of a live performance and the electricity that is normally generated in that situation.

Second, the video photography of the orchestra and conductor drove me nuts. It utilized multiple cameras, and cut between them with the frenzy of someone with a bad case of ADHD. Every shot involved a zoom or motion. The camera on the boom over the orchestra was overused. It seemed like every musical event, even if it was a single note, received a close up of the associated musician. Some shots lasted less than a second. The longer images stayed on the screen for a few seconds, but always involved motion. The impact of all of this audio-visual "Micky Mousing" was not only distracting, but rather detracting. I found myself annoyed by getting up close and personal with individual musicians. Do I really need a Hi-Definition view of the dark nail polish on the fingers of the flutist? As they say, it's too much information. After a while I just closed my eyes.

Third, the sonic effect that is critical to experiencing Ives didn't come across as it should. Ives conceived his music to be performed in large public spaces. His orchestral works exploit the physical acoustic of a concert hall. His music is architectural on a large scale, like a skyline of NYC skyscrapers. He layers sound in complex ways that just don't translate well onto recording. While the MTT and the SFS utilized the audience area of Davies Symphony Hall, it came across as more of a visual effect than an acoustical one. MTT would turn to soloists in the balcony, or the chorus in the back. Following the musical cue, colored stage lights would switch on to illuminate the remote musicians, but the music still sounded two-dimensional - even with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

All of these limitations brought back a memory of an Ives concert experience which is the standard by which I measure all others. It was a live performance of the Ives 4th Symphony at Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory in the mid-1980s conducted by Gunther Schuller. Hearing that large and complex work in that particular concert hall under his baton was a truly amazing experience. It was how Ives should be heard: performed live in a concert hall for the enjoyment of a capacity audience of enthusiastic listeners. No visual frills or HD visual closeups are necessary. Just you and music in its' raw and basic form.

I do think MTT understands Ives. The program ended with a few of the conductor's comments and reflections on the how interpret and perform Ives, given the lack of precise direction notated in some of the composer's scores.

In the end, all the technology in the world can not improve upon - or even simulate - the experience of hearing Ives in the concert hall. You just need to be there with the musicians in the flesh and blood. To make a definitive "documentary" music video of this music defeats its' purpose.

But I will stay tuned for the upcoming Keeping Score: Episodes Three and Four. Perhaps the music video format will work better with orchestral scores conceived from another perspective and with a different vision. The jury is still out on "Classical Music" videos. It seems to be a media format better suited for the glitz of pop culture. To paraphrase composer/rapper Kanye West at the 2009 MTV music video awards, "Michael Tilson Thomas' Keeping Score is good, but Beyoncé had one of the best music videos of all time."

Ives is a unique and very special case.