For centuries, orchestras have been expensive vehicles for presenting sophisticated symphonic sounds. But as non-classical shows have added visual elements from projections to smoke to colorful lighting, even classical music audiences increasingly expect to see something onstage besides tuxedoed musicians staring at music stands and sawing away on their strings. This weekend’s Oregon Symphony program shows the orchestra committing to appealing to its audience’s eyes as well as ears.
The orchestra’s performance of 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen’s massive Turangalila symphony features video art by Rose Bond, an animator and media artist at Pacific Northwest College of Art. The concert is the second in this season’s new SoundSight series, part of Oregon Symphony President Scott Showalter’s effort to venture beyond standard repertory.
“It’s not enough anymore to have cookie-cutter programs with an overture, concerto with guest artist, then a symphony on the second half,” Showalter says. He aims to both broaden (with the recent upsurge in concerts featuring pop stars from various generations to live performances with video game and film soundtracks) and deepen (with seldom performed classical works) the symphony’s programming.
With the SoundSight series, “we asked, ‘How can we reimagine core symphonic works in a way that advances the composer’s vision,” using visual arts. Showalter says. “It’s not just a gimmick.”
Showalter, along with the symphony’s vice president for artistic planning, Charles Calmer and music director Carlos Kalmar, chose for the SoundSight series rarely performed 20th-century works without the instantly recognizable names that would attract a big audience, but without making the less familiar music overly hard sells — hence the visual enhancements.
The first SoundSight concert, September’s production of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, featured Tacoma glass artist Dale Chihuly‘s abstract sculptures, created for the Seattle Symphony’s production a decade ago. The OSO’s version added stage direction and design that greatly enhanced the performance. The Oregon Symphony also commissioned original visual art for SoundSight’s other two installments, Turangalila and Igor Stravinsky’s Persephone, coming in May, which boasts puppetry by Scappoose-based Michael Curry, best known for the puppets in the Disney musical The Lion King.
“Works like Turangalila don’t need any enhancement, neither theatrical nor from the visual arts,” Kalmar says. “But when there is the opportunity to add something that brings to the listener a different perspective from a different art form, I’m in favor of considering it.”
Hymn to Joy
This weekend’s Turangalila, named after a Sanskrit word meaning roughly “play of love,” offers a broad canvas for Bond’s video creations. Composer Messiaen, who died in 1992, called his idiosyncratic, visionary 1949 megalo-masterpiece a “hymn to joy” based on the Tristan and Isolde myth about a love potion and its powerful influence. Influenced by Balinese gamelan and Indian music, veering from lush and tuneful to placid and pastoral, Turangalila includes plentiful percussion and an unearthly-sounding electronic instrument called the ondes martenot. The symphony’s vast scale made it appropriate for visual enhancement.
“Messiaen is a composer who takes his time to develop his ideas,” Kalmar says. “But we live in a time where things happen very fast. So if something can help us visualize this source of inspiration in its own artistic way, that’s fantastic.”
Bond first experienced Turangalila listening to a recording while on a hike. “I heard the first movement and my head exploded with abstract imagery,” she recalls.
With help from Pacific Northwest College of Art students, Bond devised a series of abstract images that will be projected on the walls surrounding the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall stage. While the video doesn’t follow a traditional narrative, it does respond to the music’s own development. “I asked, ‘What is the arc of this work?’ It’s 75 minutes long, it starts out in a really muscular way,” Bond explains. “I’m not going to hammer the audience for 75 minutes.” She notes that the high powered video tech permits a more immersive experience than any independent video artist could have hoped for until recently. “It can project real black instead of that washed out grey,” she says.
Because Messiaen himself had synesthesia — he saw colors when he heard sounds — “that kind of marriage of those two things made sense to me,” Bond explains. “I feel like it’s a dance with the music — choreographing these elements, knowing when to step away, when to flow with the music and when to go to black.”
The state-of-the-art video requires removing sellable seats to make room for projectors — an example of the increased expenses that make SoundSight something of a risk. Orchestras around the world have for years added visual elements (some, it must be said, pretty cheesy) to concerts for years, but usually in special concerts. Showalter and Kalmar made SoundSight part of the symphony’s regular season, rather than a novelty act.
“We’re pushing the boundaries,” acknowledges Showalter. “Each (Soundsight concert) costs more than an average concert, yet you don’t get to ramp up ticket prices. If anything, you want to encourage new audiences through partnership discounts. What a horrible business proposition: to increase expenses and decrease income.”
While some members of the symphony’s board blanched at such strategies when Showalter arrived from the innovative Los Angeles Philharmonic (whose much bigger budget affords a firmer cushion for such risks) in 2014, Showalter considers the investment “a bit of a loss leader. Yes, we have to invest and see return in terms of ticket sales,” Showalter admits. “But we are year-to-date double digit percentage ahead of last year” in ticket revenues. And the SoundSight shows are gaining local buzz and international attention from BBC Music Magazine, public radio and beyond. “These are the kinds of works that help to establish our brand, to get people to think differently about Oregon Symphony,” he says.
Tantalizingly avoiding specifics for now, Showalter and Kalmar promise even greater departures. “As a programmer and music director I want us to be relevant on many different levels,” says Kalmar. “Next season, we actually want to expand the horizons.”
While music lovers might worry less about SoundSight’s financial risk than its potential disruption, “it’s not a distraction for the musicians,” Kalmar insists. “They have to play all the time and cannot turn around to see the art.”
As for Kalmar himself, “I have all the freedom I normally have in terms of phrasing, balancing the orchestra, and so on.” The single added complication: he must keep each movement’s timing close to that on the original recording (which Kalmar recommended) that Bond used in devising her video. Kalmar says she did deploy a few “safety nets” to permit the orchestra some flexibility.
If conductor and musicians aren’t worried about being distracted, what about audiences? If you don’t like what you’re seeing, Bond said at a symphony-sponsored talk last month, “you can always close your eyes.”
The Oregon Symphony performs Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony, featuring video art by Rose Bond, with Richard Wagner’s “Prelude and Love-Death” from Tristan and Isolde at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3 and Monday, Dec. 5 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4 at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 S.W. Broadway. Tickets available online and at (503) 228-1353. A shorter version of this story originally appears in The Oregonian/OregonLive.