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Spaced-Out Mussorgsky

May 5, 2009

California Symphony

Another milestone in the history of American showmanship hit Walnut Creek’s Hofmann Theater last Sunday and Tuesday: California Symphony's claim to the world’s first presentation of a 3-D video to accompany — or rather, subordinate — a live performance of a symphonic work. The plea for more funding that followed was justified by the quality of the previous numbers on the program. Yet the grand finale, a video extravaganza of space photography, visualizations, and animation, to the music of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, fascinating as it was, did a disservice to the performing, if not the astronomic, arts.

The Tuesday concert I attended began with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Can anyone name a serious American work that is more highly regarded by the international concertgoing public, except perhaps Rhapsody in Blue? Music Director Barry Jekowsky had a great take on the interpretation, with an especially gentle opening, a concern for variety of dynamics, and a briskish set of the “It’s a gift to be simple” variations. If only there hadn’t been such a deluge of audience coughing and a few orchestral slipups, it might have made for a perfect hearing. Listening to it again reminded me of what a gold mine Copland was for Leonard Bernstein and other composers who followed. To be fair, though, I heard a bit from Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter” in Spring that Copland may have chipped off with his own geologic pick.

Tao WowsNext came the musical highlight of the concert: pianist Conrad Tao’s dazzling rendition of Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G Major. If NASA had a tenth of his talent, they’d be farming strawberries on Titan by now. The first movement was full of thrills: laser-sharp articulation and accuracy, powerful glissandos (does Tao have bionic, metallic hands?), and, what’s more, heartfelt expression. Now aged 14, he surely will conquer the musical planet before he can vote. Expressiveness came even more to the fore in the second movement. Never have I heard a left hand with such hypnotic affect, with right-hand legato melodies as smooth as a trip down the Seine. My hat’s off, by the way, to Jekowsky’s long pause before beginning the second movement. Too often, conductors don’t allow time for mental adjustment between such contrasting movements as these.

Conrad Tao Concluding with a jaw-dropper, Tao ripped through the short last movement like a meteor, at least 10 percent faster than the usual pace, which is presto to begin with. Since all soloists seem to get standing ovations from audiences nowadays, the merely enthusiastic one Tao received was almost an insult. They should have been standing on their hands.

Now to the spectacle after intermission. To give credit where credit is due, José Francisco Salgado, listed as “film creator” below Tao’s name in the program, did a stellar job of assembling and presenting the video visuals. A Ph.D. astronomer and “visualizer” for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Salgado knows his business well and is on a world tour with his sensitive coordination of images with Mussorgsky’s music. Only in Walnut Creek, so far, will the presentation be in 3-D, but it’s an especially effective technique for portraying two of the show’s many segments: solar flares and colliding galaxies.

Jekowsky, as well, is to be congratulated for superbly executing the coordination of the music with the video, thanks to a monitor below his music stand. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not report that patrons thoroughly enjoyed the program and appeared unharmed by any perceived violations of concert convention caused by the experiment.

Innovation, or Degradation?Yet I must severely question the artistic (not necessarily financial) wisdom of this sort of innovation. In sum, Salgado’s approach to entertainment (and education) degrades the composer, the performer, and the listening experience. Mussorgsky’s intentions were to portray with his musical imagination specific paintings by Victor Hartman, not outer space. The piece is suffused with gestures related to these works. To co-opt them for other uses in a formal concert setting does an injustice to the composer, and disrespects his art. Not that this doesn’t happen all the time. I draw attention, in particular, to the egregious interpretations of Wagner’s Ring cycle that would have made a murderer out of poor Richard, were he alive to witness them.

Absorbing as Salgado’s program was, I still ask: Why have a live orchestra at all? The audience was thoroughly engrossed with the visuals, crying out “Ooh” and “Ahh” when letters of the alphabet flew through the air toward the credits, and many other times in addition. The stage was darkened, and the large screen obscured most of what the players were doing. But who cared what they were doing, anyway? No one was looking. The result is dehumanization of the performer, the human presence of which is a chief reason to attend a symphonic concert. The phenomenon is similar to what occurs when orchestras play film scores live, such as Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. At least in the case of Nevsky, the composer intended the music to be played with a film. The only advantage to a live performance, in my view — and a small one at that, considering today’s home technologies — is improved sonics.

Finally, there is the problem of the listening experience itself, which in this case parallels a disturbing trend in society generally: If we all sit passively, ingesting spoon-fed images as given without time for our own mental intermediation, our imaginations will atrophy. The onslaught of cable TV has done this to many already. Why bring the scourge into the concert hall, where one of the most delightful aspects of experiencing music is to imagine your own “gnome” or “catacombs,” as outlined by Mussorgsky. Why let Salgado, expert as he is in astronomy, deprive you of that possibility by throwing galaxies at you so fast that all you can do is ooh or ahh?

For its (mostly unobserved) part, the California Symphony reserved its best for the nonexistent Hartmann Pictures, and is to be congratulated. Here’s hoping that the launch of Interplanetary Pictures at a Virtual Exhibition burns quickly on reentry, to become a splendid home video someday, where it belongs.

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.