Last night was a sad day for New York classical music: it marked the departure
of Robert Spano from this city, after eight years as music director of the Brooklyn
Philharmonic. The fortunes of the two have diverged wildly: while Spano is now
heading up the Tanglewood contemporary music festival and the winner of two
2003 Grammys, the Brooklyn Philharmonic has been on a downward path over the
past couple of years, suffering strikes and declining attendance.
Spano’s last engagement with the Brooklyn Philharmonic was conducting three
performances of The Death of Klinghoffer at BAM, the Brooklyn Academy
of Music. Despite its name, BAM has always seemed to have a rather distant relationship
with the orchestra: while the Brooklyn Philharmonic performs there, its concerts
don’t generally feature in BAM mailings, which are much more likely to emphasise
dance or theatre performances.
The Death of Klinghoffer, however, was a co-production with BAM. That
meant a much bigger budget than the Brooklyn Philharmonic could manage on its
own, both for marketing and the production as a whole. But seeing what happened
as a result, I have to say I wish that the orchestra had simply decided to stage
a cheaper concert version on its own.
What we ended up with, you see, was a pudding of a show, with far too many
cooks and a spoiled broth. Not only was it a BAM / Brooklyn Philharmonic co-production,
but the staging was "produced in association with Ridge Theater",
and the chorus was provided by the New York Virtuoso Singers, under the direction
of Harold Rosenbaum.
All of these players, it would seem, came together only at the very last moment.
Bob McGrath, the director, had put together a talented group of artists, with
visual design by Laurie Olinder and film by Bill Morrison, who made Decasia.
Faced with what was clearly a very limited budget, his set was more or less
nonexistent, and the stage was instead dominated by two large scrims, onto which
were projected images and films.
Philharmonic had described the performace as a "staged concert version"
of John Adams’s opera, but that’s not what we got. Just to be sure, I checked
with Terry Teachout,
and he confirmed that in a "staged concert version",
- The performance takes place in a concert hall, not a theater with a pit.
(If the house has a pit, as in the City Center "Encores!" series,
it is not used.)
- The orchestra is placed on stage, with no attempt made to conceal the players
or conductor from the audience.
- The singers work in a small playing area, engaging in directed movement
intended to create a theatrical illusion.
- There are no sets, but there may be minimal set pieces.
None of these were true in the BAM production. I don’t know exactly what happened,
but it seems as though McGrath, given the kind of limited budget which would
normally accompany a staged concert version, managed to stretch it to the point
where it took up the whole stage and relegated the orchestra to the pit.
I have no idea what kind of discussions took place between McGrath and Spano,
but I have a feeling that the former persuaded the latter that he could basically
deliver a fully-fledged operatic production on the budget of a concert performance.
The problem was that he did this was by relying on scrims and projections.
I would like to make a plea, here, for an end to scrims in all opera productions.
When they first appeared, they were a fantastic innovation: in a second, with
a flick of a lighting switch, they could go from transparent to opaque. But
then directors decided that singers could be forced to stand behind scrims without
affecting sound quality (not true), and all of sudden the things were everywhere,
a cheap and easy alternative to actually presenting something imaginative.
So when all the actors finally got together at the Howard Gilman Opera House
for the first time, only a few days before the first performance, no one knew
exactly what to expect. (A friendly member of the production crew explained
some of this to me during the interval.) While the chorus and the singers and
the orchestra were getting comfortable with each other and the omnipresent scrims,
the director was trying to work out the blocking, and the technicians from Scharff
Weisberg were fiddling with the video projection.
Suddenly, it seems, the needs of the video projection started overwhelming
everything else. The front scrim was very near the front of the stage, and the
lights from the orchestra pit were reflecting off it, much to the annoyance
of the video people. Similarly, if the orchestra were put on stage, where they
would be heard to best effect, that would ruin the quality of the video projections.
So, faced with a trade-off between video quality and sound quality, the producers
chose… video quality. In an opera.
That’s right: not only was the orchestra in this "concert version"
relegated to the pit, but it was also covered with a black scrim of its own,
to minimise light reflections. A tiny hole was left open at the front of the
pit for Spano to be able to peer out and actually see the singers he was conducting.
The black scrim effectively muted most of the higher register instruments in
the orchestra. Suddenly, the sound engineers had to scramble to mike up every
instrument in the pit, and artificially boost those who had been muffled using
the opera house’s sound system. They were also told that since the New York
Virtuoso Singers numbered only a couple of dozen where the score called for
a chorus of well over a hundred, everything sung by the chorus would have to
be amplified as well.
For his farewell appearance in Brooklyn, then, Spano basically became someone
telling the players in the orchestra when to come in. Any subtleties in emphasis
were basically the job of the sound engineers, who spent the entire production
making some instruments louder, some much louder, and amplifying the singers.
In other words, we had all the hassles of a live performance (like trudging
to Brooklyn in a blizzard), without most of the benefits, since everything we
heard was amplified. (One would assume that a crucial part of a "concert
performance", whether staged or otherwise, would be to keep amplification
to a bare minimum.)
Some of the time, the amplification was reasonably successful and unobtrusive.
At other times, it became a distracting annoyance, especially for those of us
who weren’t seated dead-center, and for whom the sound appeared to be coming
(indeed, actually was coming) from a speaker at the edge of the stage, rather
than from the pit.
The whole production, indeed, had a slighty thrown-together feel. Not only
was the chorus severely undermanned, but they also needed to carry the score
around with them: despite the fact that they weren’t on stage very much, apparently
these Virtuoso Singers weren’t virtuoso enough to actually memorise their lines.
At the beginning of the first act, there’s a chorus of exiled Palestinians,
followed by a chorus of exiled Jews. In this production, what that meant in
practice was a group of black-clad singers on stage left singing through a scrim,
then the lights going down, a loud rustling of papers as they closed up their
scores and moved across the stage, then the lights going up again on the same
black-clad singers, this time at stage right, singing through the same scrim.
And although the video projections were pretty enough, they didn’t help us
understand what was meant to be going on. Adams left a lot of work to the stage
production: most of what happens in the synopsis isn’t actually reflected in
the lyrics. Projections of birds and water and hourglasses are all very well,
but if you’re going to go to the trouble of staging the opera, it would help
if major plot points, like the gun at the head of the first officer, or the
bird landing at the captain’s elbow, or the terrorists leaving the ship in Cairo,
actually took place on stage. Otherwise, at the risk of seeming horribly literal,
what’s the point? To me, at least, it seemed that at the end of it all, we were
left with musical theatre without the music and without the theatre.
All in all, it was a disappointing note for Spano to go out on. He should have
been up on stage the whole time, coaxing great music out of one of America’s
more improbable orchestras – something he’s done dozens of times over
the past eight years. Instead, he was buried in the pit, amplified by under-rehearsed
sound engineers, reduced to providing the soundtrack for a show of conceptualist
With Spano gone, I fear that the Brooklyn Philharmonic will do more of this
kind of thing: essentially becoming the house band for BAM when it needs one,
but largely losing its briefly-held cachet as being a cooler and more interesting
alternative to the New York Philharmonic.
A few weeks ago, Terry Teachout posted a very
enthusiastic review of a performance by the Elements String Quartet, which
consisted entirely of 16 newly-commissioned pieces. They sold out the Merkin
concert hall, which Teachout loved to see:
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are by all accounts
galvanizing local concertgoers with unexpected combinations of old and new
music, beautifully performed and imaginatively presented. But they’re
a conspicuous exception to the numbing rule. I no longer go to hear the New
York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel, for example.
Unlike the New York Philharmonic, the Elements String Quartet went out of
its way to offer a musical experience I couldn’t even begin to duplicate
in the comfort of my living room—which is why I made a special point
of coming out to hear it on a dreary November night. So did a whole lot of
other people, and judging by the eavedropping I did during the two intermissions
and at the post-concert reception, most of them had a hell of a good time.
For a while there, a couple of years ago, I had hopes that Spano and the Brooklyn
Philharmonic could be another of those combinations, like Twinkle-Toes and the
San Francisco Symphony or Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,
which could successfully galvanize a new audience to come out and enjoy live
classical music. It was not to be; I only hope that, having failed in Brooklyn,
Spano will succeed in Atlanta.
And just to make it clear, I in no way blame Spano for the failure of the Brooklyn
Philharmonic to get up to speed. I think the management has been weak, that
it suffered greatly in the New York budget cut-backs after September 11, and
that it needed – but never got – a much closer relationship with
BAM. But even if it died tomorrow, I would remember it not as a failure, but
as the orchestra which turned out such a magnificent performance of Saint
François d’Assise in May 2000. Now that was a concert
performance: an enormous orchestra and chorus up on stage, blasting out truly
magnificent contemporary classical music without the need for any tarting-up
by stage directors. And not a scrim in sight.