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BSO Vids: Calm or Lapel-Grabbing?

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Big BSO news this week comes in the announcement of Gail Samuel as the orchestra’s next President and Chief Executive Officer. HERE is the BSO press release. Last week, as a welcome extra, BSO Spirit of Beethoven offered a nostalgic and moving remembrance of BSO past .

It was 1975. WGBH, then a major content producer for PBS, was doing expensive and seriously produced live TV from Symphony Hall once a month. The nearly 50-year-old relic on offer, Channel 2’s take on Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony under Seiji Ozawa with soprano Susan Davenny Wyner and contralto Maureen Forrester and the NEC Chorus, replete with love beads, fros, and the ponderously pontificating, lockjawed, but much-loved announcer William Pierce, totally nailed the Zeitgeist.

In that nascent era of transmitting images over a distance, a major crew with a through-composed shooting script would turn a live concert into an art form we could savor on our 27-inch Living Color TVs. The relaxed and artful television began with the departure of an elegant model couple from their Beacon Hill townhouse and ended 92 minutes later with Ozawa’s clenched fist at the climax. Have a look HERE.

Something beyond nostalgia impelled me to dig deeper into those old shows and ask a retired producer thereof to contrast the BSO onscreen then with now. Among his many accomplishments, freelance director and producer William Cosel worked for WGBH and the BSO for 42 years, from 1963 to 2005. [Next week BMInt expects to publish an interview with current director of BSO Now shows Habib Azar]

FLE: Am I a fuddy-duddy when I observe that there are too many two-second and shorter shots, too much quick cutting, in today’s BSO online?

It feels scattershot and rather impervious to elements of montage. In Evening at Symphony years back, no one worried about boring the viewer by training a camera for 30 seconds of fluid movement and fine-focus pulling; one split-screen shot contrasted sections for 45 seconds. Your shooting script resembled choreography: always attentive to score but trusting the viewers’ patience. Your army surrounded the stage and captured the feeling of a live performance.

WC: I’m out to pasture now, just flipped my odometer to 80. Now I enjoy being in the audience with you. But I am happy to talk about what we did and how it compares with what’s available now.

For Evening at Symphony, our goal was, without distractions to either players or audience, to share something that would the next best thing to being there.

We stated with in with four black and white cameras. Then color arrived; we used Marconi Mark VII cameras and finally the Ikegamis. Most important, these cameras brought upgraded lenses with 20-to-1 zoom. These have evolved to 30-to-1 for closeups from a distance. Later on, HD resolutions improved the experience closer to what it’s like to be there. An HD shot on a 40-inch screen can hold for much longer than SD on a 27 That said, we did hold some shots for more than 45 seconds even in 70s at 525i.

Eventually we graduated to five cameras and stopped. There was no more room to work because the givens were capturing a performance live with paying audience, which meant treating the experience as it happened. It required live cutting in the moment. In the afternoon before the concert, we rehearsed our cameras without players, by placing cards on chairs noting instrument seating. With an audiotape playback in real time, we took the crew through each piece giving the feeling and challenges. Sometimes quick reframe to get their next shot. Shots were numbered and opening frame described. Each camera had its list. The assistant director readied the upcoming shot, the director would call for the shot, then guide the camera as they made a slow move though the orchestra. Framing? All that happened when the camera crew actually saw players in place at the evening concert.

Fast learning was a requirement even for seasoned camera crew.

Our WGBH-BSO TV productions started in 1956 at Kresge, before moving to Sanders Theater, and then to Symphony Hall, when the Cambridge Series moved there.

In the early 1970s the Ford Foundation jumpstarted Evening at Pops with Arthur Fiedler for 10 years, followed by John Williams and now Keith Lockhart. This became a 40-year series on PBS. Evening at Symphony followed in 1972 — two network shows by the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops. Other orchestras would soon follow but not get the same steady exposure as the BSO Inc., already becoming something of a media company.

In 1970 production changes took place. Fiedler’s Pops expanded to more than a repertoire program, bringing special guests from a huge variety from the world of music. These stars needed their own space for movement and their small team, often piano, bass, and drums. For the PBS Pops we built an even larger extension for special guest artists.

Lighting took on a new role and concerts took on the added ingredient of showbiz. Then in 1980, when John Williams took over, we extended the orchestra stage to what you now see for the digital streaming. The difference was that in our case, the strings were all clustered on the new extension, allowing camera room upstage for woodwinds, brass, and percussion still on the original stage. Room to move. We were now way out into the audience, losing BSO ticket revenue, all for TV concerns. Lost seats became a line item in the budget! Plus audiences don’t really appreciate some of these distractions. Front-of-house people had their hands full assuaging the disgruntled. But everyone is ready to deal, and the audience actually adds something. For Pops not as much of a problem because of the nature of the event, and the lighting, which helped the audience’s (and cameras’) appreciation of the event.

Times have changed, though, and a whole lot more tools are available to directors now, such as tiny cameras, robotics, jib cams, and traveling cameras on booms which can work well when used with caution, and which can, if used with caution, enhance what we do, since before, we were pretty much imprisoned in the first balcony with long lenses and enormous cameras. My Great Performance shoot at Tanglewood gala used two jibs, four robotics, and a track camera in front of the stage to move along violins and convey a new angle for the soloists.

Covid distancing requirements have created much more flexibility for all kinds of new camera positions. Having a variety of angles that can’t be limited by music stands or in fact players crowding one another, e.g., the options for height of camera and distance from player offer new focal lengths.

Digital presentation also allows multiple passes of the same music. Cameras can be repositioned between takes to exactly where you need them, to get edit angles not seen on the first pass. The effect is more camera angles. Faster cutting. This is much more difficult to be done live.

But you also told me that the cutting and mise-en-scène have to be musical, that in much of what you have seen lately the shots end before they are finished and seem driven by the ability to cut quickly among cues penciled into the shot-caller’s score.

I’m more in your camp that BSO concerts should not look like MTV or music videos. BSO audiences don’t need to be overstimulated with so many rammed cuts to stay awake.

In editing it is tempting to fight an original treatment plan, to suddenly stick in a shot not available at the time. These temptations might necessarily disrupt a move or interrupt the first thoughts of a director’s plan when blocking. I don’t know if that’s what director Habib Azar is making use of with these streaming concerts. He makes the Hall look great … the camera work is what it can be, given the spread on stage. I’m sure he starts with a plan based on the score which helps design a purposeful flow of images. When I watched his streams, I was missing “live” gathering of musicians and audience. Habib lets us feel what’s left of the Hall and players dealing with covid. Lighting is appropriate and architectural. Sound is superb. Music-lovers hungry to connect with the orchestra are getting a sense of what’s happening. It feels quite musical, but the editing temptation can be more for the production finesse, since you have the chance to move cameras between takes and the edit room. Preparing for a concert treatment, I would never cut off a shot still in progress or a move unfinished. That’s me. Some would say cut faster, busy up the look, keep the TV audience tuned in.

It’s always been my goal, when working live at places like Severance Hall, Symphony Hall, or the Kennedy Center, not to be too obtrusive, but rather sensitive to the score and a conductor, to help me find a design for camera treatment. I think of the director as advocate for the audience and art form — how best to share the experience on TV.

Transitions for me have always been the most important aspect of directing. You can look at a score and see that so and so has the melody, but that’s not enough. You’ve got to find the energy without letting the score tell you exactly what to do. For instance, I always found it interesting to be on players a little bit before their famous solos. You see the oboe player preparing, and then she plays. I learned this actually when I did a show with the Big Apple Circus. When we sat in the editing room, my colleagues said, “Don’t cut away from that. Show the anticipation and the relief of nailing the feat. They just risked their lives, and they are so happy that they are still there and that they have made it.” When I directed the Three Tenors at Dodger Stadium, Zubin Mehta and the LA Phil, I stayed on Pavarotti, to watch him collect himself after “Nessun Dorma,” to share his delight how he nailed the high note.

We love to show human beings communicating with their entire bodies — the effort, exposure and risk of their work. Television allows us to savor those moments if we don’t cut too quickly to the next shot or if we let the technique distract us. So the score instructs us, but the conductor and players are our subjects who come musically alive during a real performance. I think it shows.

It’s not fair to compare TV technique used on Evening at Symphony with what are kind of studio shoots the BSO is doing now. Now, with an orchestra spread out with lots of empty space, things look so strange already, but the new look also offers an invitation, I’d certainly make use of it, to reset a half-dozen cameras between takes and then patch it all together. One can go wild with the plethora of options. Postproduction is also a great tool. In my gut, though I believe less can be more. Anything can be done to pepper a production with amazing angles: sometimes a great tool and sometimes a dangerous temptation.

I think, even with the shortcomings of TV, there’s quite a difference between the excitement of live performance, joining musicians on stage in a do-or-die moment, everyone risking something. The digital streaming concentrates us for sure, but something is lost.

You can tell the difference between session work and a live recording, where the audience and players are expecting a lot. The tension and excitement are palpable. You have to step back and protect that live tension by not cluttering up the screen with unnecessary stuff. Stick with it, and be confident that viewers will agree that what they are seeing is real and important.

And how do you as a director put your imprint on the show while honoring your commitment to the score?

You need to bring serious discipline to the table ahead of time when you start to figure out, “What am I going to do with this Evening at Symphony, the repertoire for this show?” You know that you only have one shot at getting it right. When you start figuring out what am I going to do, you bring all your tools to the table, even while being careful not to overdo, it, because then you will probably screw it up. Switching the cameras live is a high-wire act at best, even when it is classical music instead of the Big Apple Circus. You are careful not to ask too much of the person sitting next to you pushing the buttons on the switcher. You have to remember that you are baking a single cake rather than a lot of little slices. You need to bring a lot of discipline to the act of blocking the shots when you are going to be live. How do you get to this place from that place without being a distraction? It’s not always the oboe solo. Other interesting, supportive things are going on that also need to be noticed. In the end, directors have to make artistic decisions in approach. You hope to improve each time you’re in the chair.

And because there is no audience and a lot of space on the extended stage, they can do interesting things like the 360-degree Steadicam walkabout around Gil Shaham that I saw the other week. You could never do that with a live audience.

That’s the kind of thing you can do in these “special sessions” with no in-person audience to consider. These sessions exist just for the pleasure of the cameras. And then the product becomes ever closer to music videos. And a visual experience totally different from being in the hall. Does this make it better TV? In a way, yes, from camera perspective, but the gestalt of the experience can possibly get lost.

Do you think this appeals to viewers of all ages?

I do not. I remember when the idea came up of installing screens at Tanglewood showing shots of the orchestra. I theorized that instead of doing a television show on the screens, we should do “IMag,” a magnified view of what was happening. That would perhaps center on conductor shots. This step was to enhance sitting on the lawn where you see nothing. The screens helped that and now the hang in the Shed as well.

The screens helped to see the conductor and soloist put their entire being into the task. That’s valuable … and I said to Seiji, we could probably have one shot of various players but hold one on you and soloists at all times. ‘No, no, no,’ he replied, ‘I want more of theirs.’ He clearly didn’t want the players to think that this was a ‘dig the conductor’ moment. An interesting conundrum. Today’s lawn screen exists somewhere between IMag and TV show. Almost anything will bring good information to those on the lawn and in the Shed, well, you can choose to watch or not.

And isn’t it arguably an insult to the audiences to suggest that they don’t have the attention spans for BSO concerts without all the eye candy?

I agree, but you and I are in a generation whose preferences are not driving these choices. Today’s viewers like it when there’s added information. Streaming allows this between pieces and to introduce ideas from the mouths of players you’ve seen in the orchestra. Not really a concert-friendly idea. It’s too bad in a way. Many new audiences come unprepared, not as in the past to have some memory or understanding of what’s about to happen. Sure, there’s the program notes, but not the same. This helps in certain cases, because the eyes and ears of the beholders are only as good as their music education.

* * *

According to an interview I recently heard with the BSO AV people, the music director has the final call of the shots and editing.

That’s not really so strange. I was in an editing room once where Barbara Streisand asked for a shot changes because she didn’t like a certain angle. Contractual issue. Approvals have become a critical junction before broadcasts. All principals must sign off. But not for a live show; performers understand what they’re getting into — onstage and in TV coverage.

It’s ever thus; but do you think there is less individuality of visual style among music video directors today? Michael Steinberg writing for the Globe in 1974 on Evening at Symphony observed that Jordan “Whitelaw … makes it seem easy and natural, the musical and visual choices, and the technical control. It is odd and dismaying that his kind of excellence is so rare.” I noted how the next year the program gave Whitelaw credit for a term I had never seen before, “Orchestral Camera Treatment.”

I coined that term for him. He was there for every rehearsal, would block out every idea, and then sit down with the director for input. His approach was always profoundly musical. I’ll admit I learned my craft working with Jordan.

In the end, I’m a firm believer that cameras can really enhance a viewer’s understanding of the score plus witnessing the energy of musicians concentrating and playing with their full bodies. The more and better we can do that, then TV, or whatever we call it now, can become a real value-added experience, different from just listening in the Hall.

It’s what’s possible at the moment. For a while there will be more feature content, human-interest points, and perhaps a comment from conductor. All to aid interest and appreciation.  Will this art form continue on network TV? Most examples have  -diminished or disappeared. Is it the lack of audience interest? Is it TV professionals who feel that technique isn’t matching today’s audience, media, streaming, social media availability and the need for speed?

Leinsdorf made the point to me years ago, “Five minutes for us is very short time. For you in TV it’s a very long time — onscreen it can be a stretch to keep the visual interest.”

Somewhere between the cover shot and a tasteful camera treatment of a piece of music is where we need to be as TV professionals. Honor the content and situation without distracting and calling attention to what you’re doing as the TV person. Viewers should consider Live from Lincoln Center, Knowing the Score from San Francisco, or Disney Hall TV of the LA Phil, etc., as well the BSO’s offerings. Your taste counts.

Readers interested in learning more about the thoughts behind today’s BSO streaming should watch Christopher Ruigomez, operations guy at Symphony Hall, talk to recording engineer Nick Squire and videographer Brandon Cardley about all these moving parts, HERE.

Note: All images grabbed from 1975 video.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

5 Comments »

5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I would have appreciated the interview much more if you hadn’t led into it with your snide put down of William Pierce. You might not appreciate him, but he had one of the great radio voices. Also, even though he is no longer with us, for many listeners he will always be the voice of the Boston Symphony. I suppose that in today’s world there is no room for his calm, thoughtful approach, but I will always be thankful that when I started listening to the BSO he was my guide.

    Comment by Jim — February 19, 2021 at 10:17 am

  2. Jim- Sorry you took it that way. I should have made clear how much i appreciated that elevated tone. I added “much-loved.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 19, 2021 at 10:47 am

  3. Yes. But William Pierce MADE those BSO broadcasts. In my mind’s ear I can still hear his voice from the radio always using his same set phrases, but also always setting the perfect tone for Symphony. Yes, we sometimes mocked him but it was lovingly done. But I had it from a person in a position to know that William Pierce was dyslexic or had some other problem and his peculiar set speech patterns were used to help him cope with his disability. But thank you for this piece giving some background on how things happened in the old days, and with those period shots too from 46 YEARS AGO!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — February 21, 2021 at 10:50 pm

  4. In the throwback spirit, here is the entire Steinberg article, from the summer of 1974:

    Quodlibet

    MICHAEL STEINBERG

    Looking at concerts on television — I don’t really like it. I love watching the musicians at live concerts — concentration, involvement, and skill combined are exciting and moving — and I like to sit where I can see as well as hear. An essential part of the pleasure, though, is in my being able to choose what I am going to look at, and that is what television does not offer. That the camera allows me to see things I could not otherwise see — details of fingering, for example, or a conductor in front-view — is not enough compensation.

    I don’t often look at the Boston Symphony telecasts, therefore, but when I did recently — Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” was on, and Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, Seiji Ozawa conducting with Joseph Silverstein as soloist — I was struck again by how very good they are. Jordan Whitelaw, who has produced them for Channel 2 for a good many years now, does a superb job, admirable for its musicality, discretion, and technical adroitness.

    Options are few. You can show the whole orchestra. You can show a department, like all the woodwinds, or a section, like the three trombones, or an individual player. You can show the conductor, behind, before, or from the side. You can mix those possibilities up a bit by montage and splitscreen.

    Whitelaw knows and loves and understands music, and I take his aim to be directing the viewer-listener’s attention to the right places so that he will hear as fully, as vividly and profitably, as possible. In the ’30s, Harcourt Brace published low-price scores of popular orchestral repertory, Beethoven and Brahms symphonies and the like, and the gimmick was that, for the benefit of novices at score-reading who, probably coming from piano music on two lines, are bewildered at first by having to face a dozen or more lines at once, they put curved, heavy black arrows on the page to point to the center of activity in that skyscraper of staves.

    Whitelaw uses the arrow system; he picks what is important and shows you that. In a densely composed, concentrated, economical work like the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, in whose language, moreover, most listeners do not at once feel at home, this can be vastly clarifying. Schoenberg himself, by the way, sometimes did something similar, in certain scores helping conductor and players by marking some lines with H for Hauptstimme (principal voice) and some with N for Nebenstimme (secondary voice).

    Whitelaw’s Schoenberg scenario led you very surely io the right places, or, to say it very cautiously indeed, always to places where it was useful to be. I was disappointed in just one detail: in the last three measures of the first movement, the camera might have shown the entrance of the orchestral instruments that softly provide the harmonic underpinning for the soloist’s cadence. Instead, we stayed with the solo violin and probably felt the sense of cadence a little less clearly for it. But that disappointment can be localized to 12 seconds of music says something remarkable about Whitelaw’s achievement.

    If the Harcourt Brace arrows help at one stage, they also make it hard to look beyond. Guidance by camera always to the Hauptstimmen is limiting as well as helpful. I like to look at people playing accompaniments, and I watch basses because they are the soil in which the harmony grows, and I like to see the timpanist’s response to simple tonic-and-dominant punctuations, but those are tastes television understandably cannot afford to indulge. They are good tastes, though: they lead to the music, too, and besides, you can hear the big tunes without visual help. But on camera it really does have to be first things first, onward and upward with the Hauptstimmen — that limitation is built into the medium.

    Such details aside, the BSO telecasts are really impressive, and the moreso because they are filmed live and without rehearsal. There is some camera rehearsal, but the camera crew get only to practice on chairs and placecards. The rest works on the basis of Whitelaw’s study of scores and recordings, and from his by now enormous experience in television and as a listener. There are goofs and technical mishaps: something went so wrong with a passage of the “Pathetique” that a few feet of film showing a similar instrumental conformation were substituted from an earlier show of a Brahms Symphony. I never saw where the splice was.

    The high quality of the BSO telecasts was particularly clear for me because I had just seen a good many hours of Amberson Productions film on Leonard Bernstein’s Norton lectures at Harvard. Except for the Adagio of Mahler’s Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic, they were all of Bernstein conducting the BSO, and with one-and-a-half exceptions they were a howling disgrace.

    The one exception was Ives’s “Unanswered Question,” whose content was caught perfectly in the extremely slow, steady sweep of the camera across the strings, with inserts for the trumpet’s questions and the nattering non-answers of the woodwinds. The half-exception was the Mahler, which began sensibly and nondistractingly, showing you what was to the point.

    Later, though, someone got restless, and by the last page, when what you want most — indeed, you want nothing else — is absolute stillness, the cameras lost themselves in an orgy of silly detail, a fingertip filling the entire screen, the tip of a bow creeping up from behind a fingerboard, and so on. The rest was abject, in tackily glamorous taste, often musically unclear, tactless in its prying concentration on the physical effort of playing wind instruments, and with plenty of recourse to that safety valve of having one camera on the conductor all the time in case something else goes wrong (and these were rehearsed studio filmings!). Bernstein can be as fascinating to watch as any good conductor, but his public exhibitions of ecstasy are best seen from a reasonably discreet distance.

    Whitelaw, I thought after that, makes it seem easy and natural, the musical and visual choices, and the technical control. It is odd and dismaying that his kind of excellence is so rare.

    Comment by David R. Moran — February 22, 2021 at 1:42 am

  5. Which was with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus I see?

    Comment by Jerry T Sherman — February 22, 2021 at 6:04 pm

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