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video screens @ symphony concerts – good or bad?

I came across an article from today’s Chicago Sun-Times which asserts the success of the jumbotron-style video screens at the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony.  As usual, this has engendered the tired arguments between the crusty old salts and the fresh-faced ingenues as to what a travesty/triumph these screens have turned out to be.  My question is, why does it have to be an old/young issue at all?  Can’t it be a more democratizing experience?  Those people in the cheap seats, at the back of the seating area, can actually see what’s going on as well or better than those who got the prime tickets.  And frankly, it would seem to be an obvious point that being able to see members of the orchestra, the conductor, and the soloist from a close up viewpoint would be a, in the parlance of Martha Stewart, ‘good thing’.

The other issue that bothers me is the assumption that younger people who go to see Beyoncé concerts (as chosen by the author of the article) are going to go to the symphony in droves now that there are giant video screens at the concerts.  I don’t see how the two are really related.  People don’t go to see Beyoncé because of the video screens, the go to see her perform, and the video screens simply help them to actually see her from the $50 seats.  Perhaps if they were going to see Beyoncé with the Chicago Symphony, then they’d be expecting screens.

In the end, it’s all about change.  Some people hate change with an undying (sorry for the word choice) intensity, and nothing is going to change their minds about new things happening in the concert hall.  Others assume that anything new is a panacea for what ails the symphony concert format, and that doing anything less than a sweeping revolutionary set of changes is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  How about the reasonable assumption that both camps are at best half correct?

By Charles Noble

I'm the Assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony.

3 replies on “video screens @ symphony concerts – good or bad?”

Charles: Well said as usual. In the words of life’s artistic director, Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

The Van Cliburn people have found a large video screen to be very helpful in engaging the audience. For example, coughing has been greatly reduced with the help of the video screen.

The cost of a video operation may be daunting. You need the screen, cameras, other video backroom equipment, and operators. The Van Cliburn people used a fancy boom with a camera on the end. It would sweep back and forth above the heads of the orchestra.

James, you’re right: this is an expensive installation. The Vancouver (BC) Symphony introduced video screens at some (only some) of its classic concerts about four years ago, and they believe they’ve had a strong and positive impact on attendance. I’ve seen the screens in performance (watching Yefim Bronfman’s hands flying up and down the keyboard) and so have several members of the OSA staff. We approached PCPA to see about jointly undertaking the project and Robyn Williams and her staff were equally intrigued, but when we got hard figures on the expenses involved for the initial installation and then the labor costs of actually using the technology, we all took a deep breath and said, “not yet”. Neither the OSA nor PCPA has money to spare at the moment. But I’m optimistic we’ll get there; again, not for every classical concert and probably not to universal delight.

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