Dudamel At The Movies: Mixed Reactions On The Morning After

Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel i i

Gustavo Dudamel's L.A. Philharmonic concert was beamed live into movie theaters across the country. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel's L.A. Philharmonic concert was beamed live into movie theaters across the country.

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Sunday's Los Angeles Philharmonic concert, led by its dynamic young conductor Gustavo Dudamel, was beamed live into movie theaters across the U.S. and Canada.

In a post last week, I wondered if the expensive simulcast (the first of three) would be a success for the Philharmonic. We know that people come in droves to see the drama and pageantry of the Metropolitan Opera's live simulcasts (I saw Puccini's La Fanciulla del West Saturday in a tightly packed theater here in Washington). But would folks show up just to watch a symphony orchestra on a big screen?

The answer is yes. But certainly not in the same numbers the Met simulcasts command — at least not yet. I returned to that same theater yesterday afternoon for "La Phil Live," and found it less than half full with around 150 people.

Did you attend Sunday's cinecast? In any case, please let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

I asked several of my colleagues around the country to check out the show in their own cities and report back with their own observations, plus a few thoughts from fellow viewers.

First, a few thoughts of my own.

What's best about the "LA Phil Live" experience so far is the orchestra itself. The musicians' virtuosity shined in John Adams' quirky and propulsive Slonimsky's Earbox. They managed to give Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 1, "Jeremiah," a spacious gravitas. And they played Beethoven's Seventh Symphony as if their lives depended on it.

And then there's Dudamel. Only occasionally tongue-tied in English, he came across — onstage and backstage — as a genuinely nice guy, with a fierce passion for music and a puckish twinkle of humor.

What's worst is the production itself. At times it was cringingly ill-executed, as when host Vanessa Williams found herself back stage without a script. She was visibly flustered as a production person scampered after her, teleprompter in hand, which ultimately could be seen bobbing at the bottom of the shot. The microphone was still live when she asked someone under her breath, "well, what happened?" What happened was that Ms. Williams was not provided with much of a script. There was an uncomfortable seat-of-the-pants feel to her scenes backstage with Dudamel, where she asked questions like, "Are you excited?"

And just when you thought there were a finite number of ways to shoot a symphony orchestra, the "LA Live" production team came up with "the ceiling shot." Frequently, as music swelled into an arresting crescendo, the production cut to a shot of the darkened ceiling of Walt Disney Concert Hall (twice during the Allegretto movement of the Beethoven). And I lost count of the number of times the camera zoomed from the very back of the hall down to the orchestra at inopportune moments.

All of this wasn't lost on Norma and Henry Wise, a middle-aged Bethesda, Md. couple who sat in front of me. Although they were pleased to be there, and thrilled with the orchestra's performance, they felt Williams was a let down. "She was not an appropriate interviewer," Norma said.

But when the talk turned to the experience overall, the couple was satisfied. "It's a bargain," Henry said of the $20 admission price. "This could be the future for symphony orchestras." (Norma didn't agree.) He also mentioned that they are indeed subscribers to their local orchestra, the National Symphony, and that this type of simulcast could be competition. Sensing that this could be an issue, Williams, at the end of the broadcast encouraged us to get out and see some live music made by our own local orchestras.

From Brian McCreath, WGBH in Boston

Let's be clear about one thing straight away. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is one fine band. The performance I saw yesterday on the big screen (at the Showcase Cinema de Lux Legacy Place in Dedham, Mass.) was given with excitement, precision, panache, and verve.

Although Walt Disney Concert Hall is a stunning venue, and Gustavo Dudamel is one of the best at visually conveying the electricity and enthusiasm he feels, I was left unconvinced that the Philharmonic's theater broadcasts will attract more than a few curious experimenters — at the very least judging from the fact that I was joined by only 18 others in the audience.

By contrast, a fellow viewer, Boris, of Newton, Mass., who's been to several Metropolitan Opera theater-casts, was quite enthusiastic, feeling that it offers great potential to broaden the audience for classical music.

Mary, of Allentown, Pa., and her daughter, Sarah, also of Newton, were both equivocal. Thrilled to be able to experience an orchestra geographically out of reach, they also missed the physical experience of a literally vibrating concert hall, something that simply doesn't translate, even with the best in surround sound technology.

Ultimately, even though the event was enjoyable, I wonder if the entire endeavor might be brought into its fullest fruition by creating programs specifically for theater broadcast (while maintaining a live audience component as well), something along the lines of the multi-media presentations of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Beyond the Score series. And maybe, at least for an event meant to be seen at extreme close-up, on a 30-foot-high screen, we could do with concert attire that moves beyond basic black.

From Vaughn Ormseth, APM's Performance Today in St. Paul

I saw the cinecast at the Showplace Icon, a multiplex in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park (home city of Al Franken and Joel and Ethan Coen!). The theaters are situated in a "village" of sorts tucked near the cloverleaf of two major freeways, where an ecosystem of shopping, dining, and movie-going along curving brick-paved streets has sprung up overnight.

The theater was only about a third full, but the folks there were clearly engaged. For a relatively small metro area, the Twin Cities has two world-class orchestras, and this weekend both those groups' offerings were especially rich. That may have drawn some audience away.

I confess to skepticism about the event before the lights went down — much as I admire the LA Phil and Dudamel, and the spirit behind its outreach. The success of the Met Opera's cinecasts has a lot to do with the dramatic, visual lushness of opera itself. To state the obvious, orchestras thrive on sound, and watching audio is usually a kind of alien experience.

My skepticism seemed justified off the bat when technical problems threw the entire opening sequence off. Vanessa Williams was at sea — missed cues, cameras adrift. And perhaps out of her comfort zone. There was already the challenge (as in the Met 'casts) of navigating between the electricity of the hall and the bustling behind the scenes access backstage.

But hats off to her. In the end, the opening blunders came to give the interstitial episodes a daffy L.A. quality — humanizing the concert, in synch with Dudamel's own earthy presence. The sound was wonderful. My concern about visuals melted away as deftly integrated cameras swept around Frank Gehry's gorgeously designed hall. The hall really was textured and beautiful enough to sustain interest. The two opening American works are both noted for their color, and at times during those performances Disney Hall felt like a tailor-made soundscape.

The event worked most for me when it offered glimpses into the performances that wouldn't otherwise been possible. Dudamel, his back to the audience, stood rapt and motionless, eyes shut, for a full minute after Leonard Bernstein's "Jeremiah" symphony — we got to see his face. I especially liked the moments when the camera followed him from the wings back to the podium as the audience exploded with applause. Many of the performers were more expressive than I'd expected. Mezzo-soprano Kelly O'Connor sang beautifully and we likely got to hear the nuances of her performance better in the movie theater.

Here are a few thoughts from my fellow viewers:

Inez Gantz: "I just love this. I go to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra all the time. What's wonderful here [cinecast] is that you get to see the expressions of the musicians. You really get to see their different techniques and how those fit into the music overall. I think this would be so great for families and children. And of course for students and their teachers. An opportunity giving them an experience of a great orchestra in performance."

Sara Brand: "I think [the concert hall and the movie theater] are really two different experiences, which is wonderful — variations on different media. I listen to classical music in lots of different ways from my iPod to the concert hall. The event gave me a sense of how we're connected to broader audiences. I especially liked the behind-the-scenes moments because I grew up backstage [the child of an orchestra player]."

Grant Chaput: "I have a blog — KillingClassicalMusic.com — that challenges the ways in which traditional and narrow ways of seeing classical music can harm it. I thought [the surround sound] is interesting. It's a sound system designed to make explosions in movies sound real. But here we got to hear explosions in music instead. I also liked being in the middle of the orchestra. I was struck by the ambience between movements. It sounded so real. Were the coughs coming from us or from the audience in L.A.?"

From Daniel Gilliam, Minnesota Public Radio

Overall, I enjoyed the performance, which I watched at the Rosedale 14 in St. Paul.

But I was underwhelmed with the production values. I see on the website that it was broadcast in high definition and 5.1 sound, but that wasn't apparent in the theater. Either my theater wasn't taking advantage of either, or both HD and 5.1 have lost their impact on me.

Host Vanessa Williams was superfluous and only detracted from the production. She was poorly directed and produced, as was the entire show (from camera angles, to audio mixing, cues, scripting, etc). A live interview with John Adams at the hall would have been more interesting than a canned one. I'm not going to be a naysayer to these types of things, because my 6- and 4-year-olds loved it. But the LA Phil needs to seriously evaluate what they are offering people for $22, compared to what PBS does for free.

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