Music to the Eyes – Tafelmusik in the Sydney Morning Herald

Music to the eyes
Harriet Cunningham, Sydney Morning Herald
February 18, 2012

Classical music is luring new fans by lacing concerts with lush imagery.

When the Canadian ensemble Tafelmusik first performed The Galileo Project in their home town of Toronto, there was a party of astronomers in the audience. Their reaction was overwhelming. Many were moved to tears by the combination of baroque music with images of the night sky. It is a reaction that has been reproduced all over the world. Now Tafelmusik comes to Sydney.

The Galileo Project was developed by Alison Mackay, bass player and long-term member of Tafelmusik, as part of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy. The concert traces the legacy of astronomy in art and science, via Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler and Lully, Handel and Bach. The 17-strong period-instrument ensemble plays the entire program from memory, which frees the musicians to move around the auditorium. Suspended behind the stage is a giant, circular screen that becomes a portrait, planet or complete skyscape, illustrating the music and words.

The program has been so successful that Tafelmusik have taken it to the US, Mexico, China and Malaysia. In each location they aim to connect with the astronomy community, using local images of the night sky and hosting star parties – mass viewings through whatever telescopes can be drummed up from stargazing residents. For their Australian performances, they will incorporate images and text from Emu Dreaming, a book produced by the director of the Aboriginal Astronomy Project at Macquarie University, Ray Norris.

It sounds spectacular but is adding visuals just a prop, a gimmick to make classical music more palatable?

“No,” Mackay says, without hesitation. “It’s not that a concert needs to be livened up by pictures and narration. The repertoire is a proper concert, two 40-minute halves. The music and the images and the narration together become more than the sum of their parts… When you provide this new light on the music, it’s very exciting for the performers. It informs your performance and adds an emotional layer and that excitement communicates itself to the audience.”

Performing music with lighting and projections is nothing new. In 1909, Russian composer and famous synaesthete Alexander Scriabin wrote Prometheus: The Poem of Fire for orchestra and a custom-designed light projector, controlled by the composer from a colour keyboard. However, the technology was crude and the work is rarely performed.

Fast-forward 100 years and digital technology has caught up with Scriabin’s imagination: the technology-enhanced concert is fast becoming classical music’s Next Big Thing.

It is not just Tafelmusik. Last year’s YouTube Symphony Orchestra concert used multiple screens, video commentary and projections on the sails of the Opera House. In this year’s Sydney Festival, 41 Strings featured artwork projected on the ceiling of the concert hall and Sydney Symphony performed the soundtrack to West Side Story live as the film screened.

Is this the way of the future? Frank Gehry, architecture’s man of the moment, certainly thinks so. His latest concert hall, the New World Centre in Miami, is designed to bring concert presentation into the digital age. The main stage in the complex is surrounded by huge sails that act as both sound baffles and blank canvases to be filled with images – surtitles, program notes, close-ups and illustrations – from 14 high-definition projectors. The hall is intimate – only 748 seats – but sound and images are regularly fed live to “the Wall”, a 650-square-metre permanent screen on which all comers can watch and enjoy free concerts.

Alex Ross, writing in The New Yorker after the opening festivities in February last year, said, “the fusion of film and live music is so mesmerisingly seamless that I felt I was witnessing not just a technological forward leap but the emergence of a new genre.”

“It is a new genre,” says the general manager of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Tim Calnin. “It’s not going to replace concert-giving. We still believe in the power of the abstract art form of music. But when we’re trying to reach more people and introduce them to that… purer side of the repertoire; this is a great way of doing it.”

In May, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s artistic director, Richard Tognetti, takes off to the north-west tip of Australia with composer Iain Grandage, a band of musicians, a director, cinematographer, cameramen and surfers to develop The Reef, a work that will integrate film footage and stills with music. It is the third iteration of the award-winning Musica Surfica, a work that has introduced the orchestra to a new audience.

Meanwhile, at Sydney Symphony, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers has already almost sold out, four months before the event. “It is a different audience but it’s a big audience,” says the managing director of Sydney Symphony, Rory Jeffes.

Sydney Symphony has embraced technologically enhanced concert presentation with enthusiasm. As Jeffes points out, their performance of Holst’s The Planets last year was accompanied by high-definition footage from NASA space probes and the Hubble Space Telescope. He is also excited by the potential to reinterpret major works such as Tristan and Isolde, for example, which video artist Bill Viola and director Peter Sellars restaged with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, using multiple screens and surround sound to create an immersive but, nevertheless, live experience.

And therein lies the key. Mackay, Calnin and Jeffes agree that visual pyrotechnics and digital artistry are not going to kill live performance any time soon. Jeffes says, “If digital experience were ever able to catch up with the live experience, then that would be the biggest threat to the current operating model of orchestras. But it ain’t going to happen.

“Nothing beats being in the hall. We’re doing four performances of Beethoven 9 this week and they’re all sold out – that’s 11,000 people. The music speaks to them in a way that is beyond images.”

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