New World Symphony’s video “Pictures” sometimes evocative, often distracting

By David Fleshler

Modest Mussorgsky

A ghostly couple dances in a fog-shrouded castle. Hebrew letters come to life and jump off a yellowed page. Half-hatched baby chicks perform ballet.

The giant screens in the New World Symphony’s new concert hall in Miami Beach lit up with images inspired by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, as the orchestra on Sunday played two back-to-back concerts that continued the rollout of its new building. Among the orchestra’s goals in designing the new hall was to diversify the graying audience for classical music, a goal pursued Sunday with concerts that were free, lasted only an hour and featured videos shown on five curvy screens above the orchestra.

Judging by the audience at the 5 p.m. concert, the orchestra was successful in attracting a younger crowd, with lots of parents showing up with their sons and daughters. But did they like it? Children are eloquent in their body language, and a glance around the hall revealed some viewing the films with edge-of-the-seat interest and others sprawled in attitudes of deep boredom.

The orchestra again sounded sharp, resonant and well-rehearsed in a hall that brought out the tone colors and sheer sonic majesty of Mussorgsky’s work, as orchestrated by Ravel. The videos, made by students, faculty and alumni from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, were at times evocative, at times distracting, and tended to hold closely to the themes and paintings that inspired the music. Some were cartoons, resembling in tone and approach Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Others, such as the manic, preposterously speeded-up scenes from food markets in Europe and Japan, were taken from real life.

Particularly effective was the video that accompanied The Catacombs and With the Dead in a Dead Language section with images of gravestones, cemetery statues and skulls. Also well done was The Old Castle section, using eerie images of Miami’s own 1916 Viscaya mansion for a dreamlike look at the castle and its inhabitants.

It’s too soon to say what impact the use of video will have in the New World’s work, although clearly with its investment in state-of-the-art, computer-controlled projection system, the orchestra plans on using it a great deal. The videos shown Sunday were well-crafted, imaginative, often whimsical and always faithful to the spirit of the music. At times they worked well with the music, but too often they distracted from it, as multiple images on big screens made it difficult to focus on anything but them.

The concert opened with a brisk performance of Bernstein’s Candide Overture, notable for the sharp, rich colors of the winds and the mellow, bass-rich strings in the melody for the song Oh Happy We.

Tilson Thomas, speaking briefly to the audience, said that one advantage of the new hall over the orchestra’s old home at the Lincoln Theatre is that it doesn’t let in street sounds, allowing the orchestra to program quieter works. So on Sunday, under conducting fellow Teddy Abrams, the orchestra performed Eric Satie’s familiar GymnopĂ©die No. 1, orchestrated by Debussy, with the quiet but penetrating sounds of violins and oboe carrying easily through the hall without a trace of outside interference.

This has been an intense week of performances for the New World Symphony, with six straight days of concerts to inaugurate the new hall. The orchestra has a few days without performances before resuming Saturday in a concert with the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff.

The New World Symphony’s next concerts are 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday with the violinist Christian Tetzlaff playing Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2, as well as Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 and two works by Ives, From the Steeples and the Mountains and The Unanswered Question.; 305-673-3331.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “New World Symphony’s video “Pictures” sometimes evocative, often distracting”

  1. Posted Feb 01, 2011 at 8:26 pm by jnrosenthal

    I’ve been to two concerts at the new hall, and am surprised that press coverage has omitted mention of the fact that loud orchestral music (Copland 3, Pictures) is utterly ear-piercing. Many patrons with whom I spoke after the concerts complained that the acoustics left their ears aching or ringing, as they did mine and my wife’s–despite our shifting seat locations a few times.

    Many of the orchestra members, I understand, wear custom fitted earplugs-something I imagine is not unusual in orchestras, but more ubiquitous here, I’ll bet, on account of the exceedingly bright acoustics in this place. Small orchestras and chamber groups should be well served by this hall-but something must be done about the effect of loud sounds from large orchestras.

    As for the projected animations, they were a distraction, and in my view, generally lacking in novelty or creativity-cartoonish in its most perjorative meaning, best sums up my take. This is the best the USC film school could muster? I watched each segment hoping something creative, inspiring, or complementary to Ravel’s wonderful orchestration would be forthcoming, but by and large, nothing did. Mussorgsky’s friend Hartmann was allegedly a less than second-rate painter, but had the paintings that inspired the composer been available to project on the walls, I know I would have preferred to look at them. Next time they have projections during a concert, I suspect I will simply close my eyes and focus on what I’m there for–the music. I do believe , however, that the potential to use this sort of theater will prove an excellent method to ingratiate every form of music into the minds of children-and I hope the NWS succeeds in that.

  2. Posted Feb 03, 2011 at 6:09 am by Dave R.

    jnrosenthal: I totally agree with your final paragraph. I found the projections to be a big distraction (I finally just closed my eyes) and not illuminating at all. What we saw on screen was exactly what we’d expect to see on screen given the music with little creativity or inspiration, as if a 12-year-old had done the video. I’d rather rely on my imagination to create a visual when listening to classical music, but then again, I’m not the audience the NWS is trying to attract. They already have me!

    Regarding the acoustics, I actually thought they had toned down the loudness since the Copland 3 open rehearsal. But I never found the loudness at Copland 3 to be piercing. Just loud, although clear; not muddled at all. In Pictures (and especially Candide overture, a loud piece), things had definitely improved acoustics-wise (I was sitting in similar spots for both concerts).

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