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January 10, 2011 / GG54

LA Phil Live in HD: Could this be the future of classical music?

Review: LA Phil Live in HD
January 9, 2010

I wasn’t sure of the proper etiquette when watching a live concert streamed at a movie theatre. With the musicians 3,724km away from my seat, suddenly many of the often-complained-about concert hall ‘thou shalt not’ conventions became unnecessary.

It was originally labeled as a publicity stunt. Music lovers across North America would flock to their local cinemas to see conductor-wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, along with his signature curly black locks and the LA Phil, live in HD and classical music would be cool again. But then the repertoire was announced: a spiky, new John Adams composition, Leonard Bernstein’s profoundly heavy and elegiac Symphony No. 1 (more on Lenny to come) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. This bold programming is certainly far from being aimed at the lowest-denominator crowd. It raises an interesting question: could this ‘new’ live/recording hybrid be the future of classical music?

There are many of the same pleasures of the live concert hall: the excitement as the orchestra is tuning, the thrill of live musicians playing real instruments, and the fulfillment of sitting through entire works without distraction. All of this along with the benefits of recording technology: carefully balanced microphones with a ‘best seat in the house’ perspective.

Instead, it proved to be just another dirty lens between the listener and the music itself. The orchestra sounded bloated through cinema speakers designed for Hollywood’s usual exploding aircrafts and thumping basses. Digital compression resulted in little contrast between the orchestra’s delicate pianissimos in the Bernstein and rousing tuttis in the Beethoven. The charm of watching a live concert from the other side of continent had the promised HD looking more like VHS. One camera operator had an obsession with the mostly unused organ; though, it’s not every day you see an organ inspired by french fries.

But the savior here was Dudamel or, as he is cleverly branded, ‘Gustavo’. This is a man who, with every single molecule in his body, loves music. And that love is infectious. Hearing the passion and excitement in his voice as he explained Beethoven’s earthquake-inducing final movement made the whole thing worth it. His ability to be natural and candid (or, shall I say, Candide) in front of the camera proved that he is well suited to be the next Bernstein. He was wearing a vest of Bernstein’s; although he wasn’t able to completely fill it.

Of the six people in the theatre, I was the only one born after WWII. Connoisseurs will prefer the real thing and orchestral newcomers could find the repertoire over-ambitious. The sense of excitement of seeing Dudamel was palpable. Today, thousands of people saw a world class orchestra, many for the first and only time in their life. As for the etiquette, there was the unusual sounds of popcorn crunching but one tradition remained: a standing ovation.

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