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The iPod in the Concert Hall

By Stephen Brookes
The Washington Post • August 4, 2007

It was enough to make any music purist run screaming back to the Victrola.

As conductor Emil de Cou took the podium at Wolf Trap on Thursday night, he urged the audience to put on headphones, switch on their iPods and settle in for an evening of -- shudder -- music video from the National Symphony Orchestra.

The end of civilization as we know it? Probably not. De Cou was merely conducting another of his multimedia experiments aimed at supercharging the classical concert experience and drawing in new listeners. As the NSO's Wolf Trap conductor, he has mounted two wildly successful concerts of video-game music in the past year, and last summer performed the music to "The Wizard of Oz" as the film played on a huge screen above the orchestra. The shows drew thousands of new listeners.

So Thursday's "Fantastic Planet" program -- breathlessly subtitled "A Symphonic Video Spectacular" -- was fully in keeping with de Cou's anti-elitist, let's-try-something-new ethic. As gigantic video images of Earth and the cosmos (provided by NASA) danced overhead, de Cou led the NSO through a lively, fast-paced program that ranged from Henry Mancini to Gyorgy Ligeti, including bite-size chunks of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams.

The music was perfect for a summer evening; de Cou is a smart, perceptive conductor, and the NSO players, happily released from their formalwear, cut loose with enthusiasm and evident pleasure. It was a particularly good night for Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" -- a work whose ferocious beauty just explodes when played under the night sky -- and for Vaughan Williams's ethereal "Serenade to Music," which received a transfixing performance dedicated to NSO principal trombonist Milton Stevens, who passed away this week.

But it was de Cou's novel attempt to bring the iPod into the concert setting that was the most unusual part of the evening. At first glance, it seems absurd -- who puts in ear buds when the orchestra is about to play? But de Cou's idea was appealing: If listeners want to learn more about the music, they can download a running commentary by the conductor, then listen to it while the orchestra plays.

"I thought it would be neat to have the conductor being your seatmate, whispering into your ear at key moments," de Cou said before the performance. "A little about the history of the piece, or why the music was chosen, or something about how the images and the music line up."

It's an intriguing idea -- a bit like those self-guided audio tours you can take through museums, or DVDs where the director talks you through the movie.

As it turns out, though, concerts present a different challenge. Forget the obvious issues, like how you hear the orchestra if you're wearing ear buds, how you stay in sync with a live performance and -- most importantly -- how you keep from looking slightly ridiculous.

The main problem -- and it's a big one -- is that there's nothing more annoying than having a "virtual seatmate" constantly whispering in your ear while you're trying to listen to a live performance. (Perhaps it's some kind of struggle between the left side of the brain, which processes language, and the right side, which processes music.)

Two minutes into the opening piece I quietly slid off my headphones, and by intermission it was impossible to spot anyone still plugged in. We'd all slipped comfortably back into right-brain, pre-podcast concert mode.

The video side of the evening, while pleasant enough, was another good idea that didn't quite pan out. The NASA images were often spectacular: swirling nebulae, planets drifting through space and epic shots of the natural majesty of Earth. Even the spectacular gets dull when there's no narrative, though, and as the images floated by, the whole thing began to feel like one of those endless, unfocused travelogues you see on French television.

Perhaps the problem was just that the music itself was too good. Rich in ideas and subtle beauties, surging with power and exalting emotions, most of the works on the program were complete in themselves. They already contained whole worlds and rewarded full attention. Any additions would inevitably feel excessive.

But de Cou's experiments are important: He's one of the few conductors trying to open new doors into classical music, either with video (de Cou, 48, was first drawn to music by the 1940 film "Fantasia") or other new technologies aimed at younger audiences.

"People have a stronger demand for visual input now," he said, noting the explosion of imagery people are exposed to, from cable television to the endless churning sea of YouTube.

"But for the most part, symphony orchestra concerts are presented the same way they were in the Eisenhower administration. People should not be afraid of experimenting. The arts are durable -- we're not going to break Beethoven by trying something new!"


Posted on Sunday, August 5, 2007 at 09:54AM by Registered CommenterStephen Brookes | Comments2 Comments

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Reader Comments (2)

I enjoyed reading your review here, though I wasn't at the Wolf Trap concert. In contrast, a performance earlier this year in which the Baltimore Symphony played music by Philip Glass while Frans Lanting's photography "danced" on a giant screen over the orchestra was perfect. An audience member later commented that this seemed the best way to look at photography. Of course, there was a lot of coordination between conductor (Marin Alsop), composer and photographer to make this work.
August 5, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterClayton
Thanks Clayton -- yes, I agree that the Lanting-Glass work was much more organically integrated, and the imagery more distinctive and unique. And maybe your audience member has it right -- this is a way to enhance looking at photography, rather than listening to music.

But either way, I think a lot of people really enjoyed the NSO-NASA collaboration on Thursday, and there's enough room in the tent for everybody -- especially on a summer night at Wolf Trap! So, kudos to de Cou for giving it a try -- SB
August 5, 2007 | Registered CommenterStephen Brookes

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