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More Than Streaming Concerts, It’s Musical Storytelling

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Emmy Award-winning, stage, screen and TV director Habib Azar talks about his approach to BSO streams and to telling stories visually.

FLE: What’s your method of preparing for shooting — do you basically consult the score and chase the instruments across the pages? 

HA: Every project is completely different — it may sound obvious, but of course a director is first and foremost a storyteller. So step one is deciding what story one wants to tell. Is the space a character? Is the story about the conductor? About an event? About the musical interpretation? About a group of artists gathering during covid against all odds?

Once I decide on what the story is, I see what technical capacities are available (camera types and positions, lighting, etc.) and then decide how best to deploy everything to make it work. At that point, I’ll start diving into the score and try to come up with a detailed plan for how to shoot it. On top of that I try to stay nimble so I can adjust organically to what is actually happening in the performance.

That is to say, my approach to marking a score for a prerecorded show during covid with the BSO and six robotic cameras with two operators is totally different from an opening night live show with audience and 12 manned cameras celebrating a new music director. Just because both programs might have Dvořák 9 doesn’t mean I can reuse my score. Each time, it’s completely and utterly different.

I enjoyed looking at your shooting script and I see a lot of indications for camerawork that run one to eight bars in duration, but it’s not always clear to me which of the six prepared cameras gets the tally light in any instant. So would the script look different if you were broadcasting it live and having to switch in real time?

We do in fact switch much like a live show, the only difference being, somewhat to the consternation of the BSO because it creates more work down the line, that I do it two different scripts. On the second day I’ll move all the cameras and do it from a completely different vantage. If, for example, camera four was on the bassoon, it could switch to the clarinet for the appropriate moment, but that’s just to assure complete coverage.

What you see in that script is 95% what the final edit looks like. There’ll be some mistakes and more adjusts, but I’m actually in that document envisioning like it was a live show.

But the anxiety is off because you know that it’s not going out live and you are going to have the opportunity to insert other shots if you need to and reset for the second runthrough. Then since your shooting script come within 95% of the final product, would it be totally out of the question to do the BSO live like the Berlin Phil and Wigmore?

I like live TV too. A lot of work is done live; but the way we’re doing it gives us great opportunity to move the cameras and get more angles. When you’re doing a live show and there’s a long oboe solo followed by a flute solo, your choices are to pan the camera from the oboe to the flute or to cut to the conductor; but here it could become a dialogue with a single shot of the oboe and then a single shot of the flute, since I can move the cameras and get the coverage I need.

Sometimes you can tell the story as a dialogue with a two-shot, whereas other times you need to weave images. It is like a Sudoku puzzle. You have only so many camera positions, and you know the things that you want, but you can have only one at any given time.

Of course, when we go back to normal seating, there’s less that you can do even with these miniature cameras; furthermore, the little cameras don’t really necessarily mix well in terms of color with the higher-quality cameras. And you don’t want to spend a lot of time in post doing recoloring, do you?

There’s not the kind of time or budget to polish to that level.

I did an Appalachian Spring with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in a tobacco barn in Kentucky [HERE]. We shot it with a lot of fancy film cameras and equipment that really allowed us to create a definitive version — one of the few times I was able to bring something to film exactly how I envisioned it.

In general, during covid and in particular with the BSO shows, I’m trying to seize the amazing opportunity to tell the story of the music with a distanced orchestra and all the advantages of being able to put cameras anywhere. We can get relationships and shots that will never exist again for the rest of our lives. It’s such a gift. Look at the sequence to the right:     

During normal times you’ll never be able to get a relationship shot between the principal trumpet and principal clarinet, but now we’re able to highlight the conversation between those instruments, in the Firebird, for example.

For these shows I’m really diving into the music and trying to tell an exciting musical story. I’m pulling out what I find interesting about the material and the communication between the players.

Do you like screen splits for interesting juxtapositions?

There are a time and place and opportunity for everything, of course, but I’d say in general I’m not particularly a fan of splitscreens — it feels like an old-fashioned and glib trick. Also we have had our share of tiled videos during covid. So this technique can safely take a backseat for a bit!

That said, off the top of my head I can think of Brian Large’s treatment of This Is Prophetic from the HGO’s broadcast of Nixon in China as a particularly awesome use of a pseudo-splitscreen technique (he did these half-dissolves of Carolann Page, which were beautiful!).

Do you build in camera moves? I don’t mean jibs but long pans on long lenses from one player to the next … like tilting up the second violins or violas?

Of course! It’s awesome when you can tell the story of the music with camera movement. That’s the platonic ideal. It’s tougher to do on the PTZ cameras we are using for the BSO, so there isn’t as much in these programs, but we’re telling the story in different ways.

Can your PTV cams automate any of these movements?

I don’t use any of the automated moves on the PTZ cameras. There is an interpretative element of camerawork that is lost when it becomes mechanical.

How many cameras have hands-on operators?

The basic setup for the BSO shows is two people operating a total of six robotic cameras. We sometimes add an operated camera and a jib to that complement.

Do you feel that tight instrument shots can help the viewer? 

Do you mean so tight that we are cutting out the players face and focusing on fingers? I would say that I use those types of shots only very judiciously. I generally prefer to see the player, but there is definitely a place for it. I used extreme closeups like that at the top of the Firebird.

I don’t know if it helps the viewer, but it is definitely a tool in the storyteller’s toolkit!

Is there a special time they are effective?

Fast fingering!

How do you build a unified look or directorial style without making the viewer think too much about the camera treatment?

Attempting to be invisible as an interpreter is impossible. Our vernacular is always changing so something shot in the ’80s that might have felt organic at the time feels really obvious and kitschy to us now. My goal is to tell a story about the music and event that is interesting or to make sure I’m documenting the important elements of a live event for posterity.

There is this gorgeous video of Glenn Gould and Yehudi Menuhin performing Schoenberg’s Phantasy for Violin and Piano (which will be featured in an upcoming BSO program). First off, can you believe there was a time when we would play a piece like that on live TV? I imagine the director was trying their best to not get in the way for the viewer, but when you watch it now, you are hyper-aware of the camerawork.

As a younger musician and TV person, do you feel enhanced TV production covering the orchestra should be designed to try and attract bigger audiences? What would they be? Music aside, is the orchestra — a static stage situation — making TV and patience big challenges to attract or keep the loyal viewers tuned in?

I feel old! Thanks for calling me young!

The frank answer is that I think the main problem is that so much classical music is shot extremely poorly and then it is indeed a huge hurdle for the audience. If we’re on the trumpet during a principal viola solo, or we aren’t telling the story of the event or the music, then of course it’s going to stink on TV. When I watch an orchestra concert that is just dissolving between two wide shots for 90 minutes, I pull out my phone and check Instagram.

There is a shocking level of acceptance of terrible video direction from major arts organizations. Good interpretation will totally keep audiences engaged. For example, it’s fascinating to watch different directorial interpretations on the Met players of the same opera production. The choices the director makes has an immense effect on the quality and watchability of the broadcast. Almost more so than the singer’s performances.

So I don’t know if we’re going to attract broader audiences if we cut faster or slower or turn the camera upside down, but I definitely believe that poor direction that lacks technique or interpretation is deadly to the artform.

How would you shoot the orchestra in its normal seating?

It’s the same process: see what the rules are, define the story you want to tell, and then put cameras in the best places possible.

Do you get any complaints from players about cameras in their faces?

I get complaints about everything from everyone! Making music is the most important thing and the musicians are our heroes. If a camera needs to be moved, we happily move it. I’d say that I can count on one hand the number of times we weren’t able to work out a mutually beneficial camera placement. Over a beer sometime, I’ll tell you about the time a harp player making a European entrance just picked up the only camera I had that could see the principal horn and moved it to the side seconds before downbeat to a live Mahler 4 at Carnegie Hall … or the time a player moved their chair at the last moment and blocked my only good shot of Anthony McGill seconds before a live broadcast of his first concert as principal clarinet of the NY Philharmonic.

Do you agree that the higher the resolution, the less need for very tight shots?

Not at all. It’s about framing and sequence. The resolution of the camera should be immaterial to the storytelling.

In movies, we accept that directors tell us what to look at. But in concerts and opera, we might prefer to make those choices ourselves. When broadcast reaches 8K, might it become possible to transmit a cover shot and give the viewer virtual opera glasses to zoom in?

It’s true that when you are watching a concert film you are stuck with the director’s interpretation. Some people will always prefer just a simple wide shot. The idea of that reminds me of filming dance: in general I’d say the request I get from most choreographers is to just take a wide shot and never cut. But then I also remember one time when I was assisting a director who was filming Mark Morris and he flies into the room and says, “Please just promise me that you won’t make a boring dance film that has no style or energy.” (I’m paraphrasing.) So I guess different strokes for different folks.

In sound mixing for movies, the audio perspective changes with the shots. Not so for TV. Do you think that should change? Do you think soloists are over-enhanced in the audio mixes? They certainly jump out more than they do in the space.

I’ve seen audio people who will mix to picture (if you take a shot of second violins they’ll lift them in the mix for that shot) and people who just let the musical interpretation stand. You know, it’s another big and loaded question. Oftentimes the audio experience on TV will fix some of the problems in the hall (like if a soloist is being drowned out by the orchestra). Is that a good thing? If you’re asking just my opinion, then yes, totally. I prefer that. I also don’t mind when composers started writing concertos in the ’70s and ’80s expecting the soloists to be amplified so they could make thicker orchestrations.

Bill Cosel opined about music video and your work in particular [HERE] on BMInt last week . Since turnabout is fair play, what do you think of his work?

I admire his video of Appalachian Spring from Tanglewood; I’ve watched his stuff over the years from with the Cleveland Orchestra. He has very clear style. There are other styles, of course. It’s really exciting and engaging and to have a variety of approaches. Some are more chaotic, some are more fast-paced, some focus on the music, some focus on the performance, some focus on the event. Perhaps there’s just too much video being made, but as long as there’s intention and a care given to the craft, it’s probably worth seeing.

Take Peter Sellars, for example. He usually insists on directing his own camerawork for his productions. I worked with him just a few years ago and his approach was to be un-shot-scripted, but even beyond that, he directed the operators to react in their viewfinders naturally and aim at what was interesting to them.

And then he would sit in the truck and call the shots that looked interesting to him. As I understood it, he believes there’s an energy of live performance that’s lost when it’s transcribed in the normally scripted multi-camera way and he was trying to capture the energy of being in the house. Whether it works or not ….

That’s pretty dangerous, because you never know when the when the operator will suddenly decide to pan away from something, or refocus, or do something that you just traditionally don’t want to be seeing in the final cut.

But he wanted that energy, danger, and a little bit of chaos. The operators were dedicated, and keen on making sure that they were capturing this correctly; they’re all learning the story and they’re all taking notes … to the extent that he ended up scripting most of the show kind of out of deference to everyone’s commitment and the need to have a finished product

So in essence cameramen did their things during rehearsals and the final product summarized their unusual approach.

It was really experimental and interesting, like a PhD dissertation.

In my class on style and multi-camera direction, I have my students compare the Peter Sellars-directed version of Doctor Atomic HERE with Gary Halverson’s Met Opera version [HERE]. They are both excellent in extremely different ways. Interestingly I hated the Sellars version for years, and only after teaching it over and over did I come to really fall in love with his interpretation. 

* * *

In one lecture on filmmaking I attended, the famous old montage expert told us that you don’t make movies by moving the camera .…There’s got to be a reason why you pan or tilt if you’re not following something that’s moving. Our eyes move in discrete jumps; it’s very hard to pan your eye across something slowly, and that’s why it’s disturbing when you see rapid pans of un-moving scenes.

I’m certainly pleased that you are asking these questions of visual style, but, of course, I’m so very happy when organizations like the BSO think there should be a director rather than just a technician who follows the dictates of the score reader and pushes the buttons when a solo comes up. A real director will also ask where you want to take it from. Who’s the oboe listening to? Is she reacting to the conductor and the other players? We need to be contextual; otherwise a shot of the soloist is meaningless.

And if we just have a succession of shots of whoever has the theme, it risks looking like a Zoom session.

Exactly so

I would like to see what you do with something that’s very slow-moving like Daphnis et Chloé. I can just imagine that you never have a hard cut, that you’re just constantly dissolving, tracking, and zooming so the whole thing feels wet. Can you imagine 20 minutes without a single hard cut?

I read your article, and you’re not the first who said, ‘Oh, he takes so many edits.” I hear the music this way and tell it that way. If I’m listening to the oboe solo, then I’m also listening to the second violin in a kind of a suspension. I need to illustrate how I listen.

I was more getting at how different your rhythm would be in in something that unfolds slowly.

It’s a good question. I try and come to each piece on its own terms. I remember I did a Phillip Glass show from Carnegie Hall. I went to Medici TV and said, “Now listen, this is Philip Glass, so I’m really gonna take my time.” They got all freaked out and said, “No shot longer than 45 seconds.” The piece was crying for a slowly developing shots. But to give Medici credit, they wanted it to be about the event rather than to become an art theme film. They wanted it to be about the spectacle.

Videos of classical music concerts can push a lot more information across our screens than the poor old brain can process. Is there still a role for radio?

Sometimes I, too,  like to close my eyes at concerts and just listen!

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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