Friday, November 12, 2010


So, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has decided to jump on the HD broadcast bandwagon, sendingseveral programs led by Gustavo Dudamel to a few hundred theaters around the U.S. I sit amazed, because I see very little value in what they're doing, given the choices made for the first three programs.

People are attending the Met and other opera HD performances in droves because opera is hugely expensive, there are a limited number of companies that can do full-scale professional opera, some singers will never appear in, say, Seattle or Iowa, the repertory being broadcast is sometimes hard to find outside major opera companies, and the Met has a long, long season. Opera in HD has more appeal for me from January to May when the ballet is on in SF, for example.

Take a look at the repertory that the LAPO has picked for their first three HD broadcasts: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms. Why, oh, why?

There are plenty of good, no, great, performances of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms on CD and DVD and it's easy to find local orchestras at all levels (major, regional, local) who do at least a good job with those composers live. Why would I want to see a young and comparatively unproven conductor in that repertory on HD when I can have Furtwangler (or Toscanini, or Mravinsky) at home, or Michael Morgan a few miles from my house, or Michael Tilson Thomas a few miles farther away? 

And if I wanted to hear the LAPO, why would I pick an HD broadcast? The broadcasts I've seen uniformly use a tremendous amount of dynamic compression, robbing broadcasts of the full dynamic range of the music and distorting the music and the sound of the orchestra. The LAPO performs in one of the great halls in the world, with superb acoustics. Why would I want to see the LAPO in reduced circumstances, as it were? 

I might go for unusual repertory, a great conductor, or a unique experience of some kind. Gustavo Dudamel in Beethoven? No way. I can see the underrated Marek Janowski live at SFS this season. Esa-Pekka Salonen in Bluebeard's Castle or something by Kaija Saariaho? Sure. Alan Gilbert and the NYPO? Sure - they're not a one-hour flight (or long, but do-able, drive) from me. Dudamel conducting a work completely new to me? Well, maybe!

The LAPO says that this program offers those who do not have opportunities to see a live orchestra the chance to do so. Really? I took a look at the list of venues for the Beethoven program, and I'd bet that 70% of them are within 50 miles of a symphony orchestra. That's certainly true of the California venues, anyway. Anyone have the chops to put their venues and the location of symphony orchestras on the same Google Map? (Hmmm, the Maps API is pretty easy to use if you know some JavaScript...)

Now, I realize that the price of a ticket to one of these broadcasts will still be within the financial reach of more people than tickets to one of the majors - the LAPO's price structure at Disney is pretty high. But the Redwood Symphony, for example, a local community orchestra is ambitious enough to have performed quite a bit of Mahler, charges $25 for single tickets, and $65 for a season subscription....and you can bring a friend for free. They play a more interesting repertory than the LAPO programs, as well.

So I sit here scratching my head over the LAPO HD broadcast program. The Met, with 1,500 venues and lots of sellouts, appears to be making a nice chunk of change on their broadcasts. I wish the LAPO well, but they'll do better with more interesting programming. 


Elaine Fine said...

Unfortunately the reasoning is that these days there is so much about the "performer" (i.e. conductor) involved in the way people decide to "see" one kind of entertainment or another. Dudamel sells, and the audience they're trying to sell "him" to (which means the orchestra) is one that would normally not go to a concert in a concert hall.

Why would people new to classical music go to a movie theater to hear (and see a vibrant young man conduct) music they have never heard of? If he's worth anything, shouldn't he be conducting the big boys? (I couldn't stand his Mahler 1, by the way.)

It is very different with opera, because there are so many more things to pay attention to in opera besides the conductor and the musicians, and there's a distinct advantage to being able to see it up close for an upper-balcony-if-you-are-lucky price.

Unfortunately this is a glimpse of the new world order when it comes to music. Institutions have to change for the times if they want to compete adequately for the "leisure dollar." But those of us who have better things to do don't have to go.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Do we know whether Dudamel actually sells? He get tons of press attention, owing to the LAPO's publicists and presumably his own publicist. Is that translating into ticket sales for the organization?

Robert Gordon said...

Yeah, Dudamel sells, at least so far. Last season it was hard to get tickets to anything he was conducting; this year it has been a little easier (for example, Turangalila didn't quite sell out). I think this is mainly a function of novelty -- the first couple of years Disney Hall was open everything sold out, but then it got progressively easier to get tickets. I expect the same to happen with Dudamel.

The LA Phil audience is much more interested in novelties than most concert audiences -- mainly as a result of the 20-year Esa-Pekka seminar in modern music, but also because the LA art/film/theater/rock crowds will occasionally turn out for something unusual. The appeal of the hall is also a factor -- sometimes things are exciting in Disney Hall that wouldn't be in a different venue, and people have learned that. The Phil management must have decided that the audience for HD screenings will have more conventional taste. I wouldn't want to argue the point -- they could be right.

Bob said...

I'm sorry you didn't read beyond the release and look at the entire content of the three programs, particularly the first two. While the first program does have Beethoven's 7th, it also includes Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 1 ("Jeremiah") and John Adams' "Slonimsky's Earbox," neither of which are mainstream repertoire. The second program is all-Tchaikovsky, but it includes fantasy-overtures interspersed with actors reading lines from the Shakespeare plays that inspired the music. I have no idea whether it will work but I think it sounds intriguing. The final concert was supposed to include the U.S. premiere of Henryck Gorecki's Symphony No. 4, which of course won't happen since he died this week. Whether the Phil's concerts will sell as well as the Met HD telecasts is yet to be determined, but I think the orchestra is to be applauded for taking the step. You, of course, have lots of opportunities through your Blog renown and San Francisco location. Not everyone is as lucky.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Bob, I actually read the full repertory of each of the programs. My blog renown, such as it is, gets me pretty much nothing.

calimac said...

If Dudamel is really the selling point all by himself, then what does it matter what works he's conducting? Why not go for something that will attract a few people who want repertoire they can't hear at home in better sound any day?