Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark

L.A. Philharmonic fishes for wider audience with simulcast screenings in movie theaters

Jan 5, 2011 at 2:06 pm

One of the nation’s hottest, hippest and most respected symphony orchestras is coming to Cincinnati — setting up a sort of residence, actually — beginning Jan. 9. It’s the Los Angeles Philharmonic with conductor/musical director Gustavo Dudamel, the 29-year-old Venezuela-born wunderkind whose 2009 appointment to the L.A. position has made him a superstar on par with pop musicians.

But before — or while — you get excited, keep in mind the L.A. Phil will also be in approximately 140 other cities, on almost 440 movie screens, at the same time. In a grand experiment for symphony orchestras, this year the L.A. Phil will broadcast three Sunday-afternoon concerts live to theaters from its home at the modernistic, architecturally heralded Walt Disney Concert Hall. (More broadcasts might be added.)

The company behind it, Colorado-based NCM Fathom, is the same “alternate content provider” that sends live performances of New York’s Metropolitan Opera to theaters. In Cincinnati, the L.A. Phil will be played at 5 p.m. this Sunday at the AMC Newport on the Levee 20, Springdale Showcase Cinema, Rave’s Florence 14 and Regal Deerfield Township. Regular adult tickets are $20-$22, plus a surcharge.

“This is the largest arts initiative other than the Metropolitan Opera that we have embarked on,” Dan Diamond, Fathom’s vice president, says. “We felt at this time the L.A. Philharmonic really were the ideal partners to launch this program in movie theaters. They’re clearly in the right mode right now, led by a terrific conductor who is becoming a worldwide sensation. We felt (that) created a synergy between the symphony and the broader demographics of audiences in movie theaters.”

For the first concert, Dudamel will conduct the orchestra performing Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah),” featuring mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor and John Adams’ “Slonimsky’s Earbox.” On March 13, Dudamel’s program will feature three Tchaikovsky overtures based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and The Tempest. Major actors are scheduled to read from Shakespeare as part of the program. On June 5, Dudamel will present “Brahms’ Symphony No. 4” and “Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A Minor, Opus 102.”

Deborah Borda, L.A. Phil’s president and CEO, said her organization got the idea after witnessing the sell-outs on its first national tour with Dudamel at the helm.

“Clearly, in the 21st century we’ve entered a whole new era in terms of how to deliver concerts to a broader public,” she says. “In past times, orchestras spread their word through touring, and then it advanced to radio broadcasts and CDs and iTunes. This is just a continuation — a step beyond that.”

Borda also says the L.A. Phil has made a “six-figure investment” in the live broadcasts.

“It’s really at this point about outreach and establishing a national brand for the orchestra,” she explains. “I think there’s a day when it could eventually break even for us, or make a very small profit, but these are very labor-intensive kinds of undertakings when you produce them and market them correctly.” (She’s talking about the L.A. Phil, not NCM Fathom.)

Live broadcasts of the Met started in 2006 with just some 100 theaters. It has grown now to 597 theaters and performing arts centers. But if L.A. Phil finds the same kind of success and achieves national “super-orchestra” status, could it become competition for regional cities with professional orchestras? Continued existence is an ongoing concern for some, who are financially struggling. And the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CDO) is trying to increase attendance and plan its future — Music Director Paavo Jarvi is in the middle of his final season. (The CSO does not have a concert on Sunday, so this week’s broadcast isn’t head-to-head competition.)

“They have a wonderful orchestra,” Borda says of the CSO. “If the L.A. Philharmonic comes touring to your town, that doesn’t mean you don’t support your local orchestra. In fact, it might make you more interested in your local orchestra. We’ve reached out to the League of American Orchestras for orchestras in communities to set up subscription tables and use this as a way to stimulate interest. Nothing replaces the live music experience.”

Meghan Bernaking, a communications assistant for the CSO, sent an e-mail reply to a CityBeat inquiry, saying, in part, “There is definitely a growing trend of delivering culture and art outside the confines of the traditional performance hall. ... While we make every effort to stay abreast of new technologies (particularly by reaching patrons through e-mail, mobile messaging, social media and video), one of the main priorities of the CSO is to deliver outstanding, one-of-a-kind live experiences to our patrons in Music Hall. In fact, our audiences can purchase tickets to a live performance of the CSO in the historic Music Hall setting for about the same price as a movie ticket to see a performance on screen.”

In its press release announcing the L.A. Phil series, NCM Fathom promises it will be “an immersive sight and sound experience.” But can an orchestra performance, as opposed to an opera, really be that exciting visually? Yes, says Diamond, partly because the broadcast will feature behind-the-scenes commentary by Dudamel and others.

“To be able to see backstage and in the orchestra pit, and to hear from performers and stage managers and the conductor, are things an average fan would not be able to see,” he says. “Fans will have the opportunity to see the expressions on the faces of the players, to see the intensity and emotions on the face of Gustavo Dudamel, and to experience the music in an entirely new manner.”

Plus, for better or worse, concert moviegoers can eat popcorn.

For more information and advance tickets for the LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC’s screenings, visit www.fathomevents.com.