I was amazed by the many innovative ideas related to the performance of, and the teaching of, classical music described in the Winter 2012 issue of Listen magazine. Classical music has long inspired more groundbreaking thinking than it is usually given credit for – from trends such as atonality, which I am personally not enthusiastic about but does represent a radical shift in music composition, to the rise of the budget recording company Naxos, now twenty-five (and the focus on another article of the same issue).
It is wonderful to see classical musicians and managers try new ideas – especially technology-related ideas – to adapt to the twenty-first century and attract new audiences. Here are the articles that caught my attention. “Attack of the big screens” discusses the recent trend by organizations such as the Vancouver Symphony and the New World Symphony to use big projection screens in their concerts to add a visual arts dimension to concerts that, traditionally, have only been heard. There is of course a risk that the visual element will distract from the music, but since most people are visual rather than auditory types, how many concert-goers can’t help but have their attention drift to their work or their children during a purely auditory performance anyway? (Sorry, the conductor's hand gestures don't count as entertainment.)
Well-chosen visual elements can help sustain attention and perhaps give listeners new insights into the music. For instance, according to the article, the Houston Symphony included NASA-provided images of the solar system for performances of Holst’s The Planets back in 2010. The production has since then traveled to several other cities. Personally, I’d love to see someone combine some of the great symphonies of the modern repertoire with modern dance. Another idea that seems to be popular nowadays is for orchestras to play the score of films – in fact, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by Marin Alsop (about whom I’ve written elsewhere) recently gave a concert version of the 1938 movie Alexander Nevsky, with a score by the great composer Sergei Prokofiev.
That score happens to be mentioned in the Listen article, because a New York-based producer created a concert presentation of the movie, using a restored print and Prokofiev’s score, as early as 1987. Just the other week, I noticed as I was reading the credits at the end of the movie Lincoln that the score had been performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Opportunities for top music orchestras remain in high-quality movies, and could represent an interesting way to broaden audiences. (A young adult I chatted with when I attended the Aspen Music Festival last summer also seemed to think programming more high-caliber movie scores would increase the appeal of classical music. It seems the time is ripe for such an idea to take hold.)
“A multimedia maestro” describes an app created by Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen (music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic until 2009 and now with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London), which the journalist summarizes as “a fairly comprehensive look at the inner workings of a symphony orchestra” using “eight significant pieces of orchestra music from the Classical period to the present” and allowing users to “run several windows simultaneously”, including some quite sophisticated layouts of the different sections playing as well as a scrolling score and “a graphical score of the sounds being generated,” whatever that is supposed to mean. This is only one of the technology projects that fascinate Salonen, who recently visited MIT’s famed Media Lab to learn about new interfaces that transcribe hand gestures moving in space, such as the conductor’s movement. I can’t wait to learn about what other innovations he will undoubtedly pioneer in the coming years.
Finally, the “Discovery – Outreach” section has a wonderful article about online music lessons provided by start-up ArtistWorks, which “has developed a roster of nearly twenty musicians who together have recorded thousands of hours of video lessons”. The lessons rely on one-on-one interactions: “student subscribers record and upload videos of themselves performing… A few days later they get a video response from the teacher.” A key selling point of ArtistWorks is that its teachers include musicians from the very best orchestras around, such as three Philadelphia Orchestra principals and a Los Angeles Philharmonic violinist.
The article provides the perspective of the classical guitarist who helped start the Curtis Institute of Music’s guitar department, quoting him as quickly amassing “more than a hundred” students. Many students who would love to learn an instrument may live in small towns with limited access to instructors, and this can encourage them along in a hobby that fosters a wide range of skills while giving them access to musicians at the top of their profession – what an amazing opportunity to connect with role models.
After all this talk of technological advances in music, I can’t resist ending this post with a mention of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming in Jackson, Wyoming, with its stunning surroundings in nature, with Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in the background. Not much tech there, but time for the musicians to "hike, bike and canoe" on their days off between rehearsals.