Oregon Symphony’s Music for the Eyes

Randi Minetor • March 2018Projection Design • March 12, 2018

Dramatic, kinetic flames provided one of the many backdrops for Oregon Symphony. Photo by Brud Giles/Portland Tribune

Matthew Haber of BeSide Digital Pairs Natural Imagery to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

For more than two decades, orchestra management around the world has had one important fact foremost in its mind: The audience for live symphonic concerts has begun to dwindle. The reason is simple enough — the traditional subscriber to an orchestral concert series is older than ever before. Millennials, now the largest single demographic in the world, have not gravitated en masse to the concert halls frequented by their parents and grandparents.

“Millennials have more sources of entertainment to choose from now than in generations past,” wrote Adam Faze at Forbes.com recently. “Concert halls and opera houses are going to need to compete for the attention of millennials if they want to continue to be the staples of cities around the globe. They will need to be creative and adapt to the 21st century at times by featuring new events, making it more of an experience and opening their doors to a much more diverse community.”

It’s a tall order for an orchestra, but the Oregon Symphony — the oldest continually operating symphony in the western U.S. — is not just any orchestra. With its optimistic slogan, “Moving Music Forward,” the symphony has embraced the goal of attracting new audience members with innovative visual presentations integrated with music.

“It’s certainly something that comes from our president, Scott Showalter — being relevant, being part of important conversations,” said Charles Calmer, the orchestra’s artistic administrator. “It’s easy to see an orchestra as being old, white and male, but that’s not the Oregon Symphony. This ties in with the expectation that younger people are saturated with visual information; they expect it. Having a high value put on the visual element instead of just seeing a concert in the usual format speaks to those constituents.”

In its 2016-17 season, for example, Oregon Symphony mounted a series of performances of Bluebeard’s Castle, an opera by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, with scenic elements, including giant glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly. The season also included Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, an 80-minute, 10-movement piece that the Oregon Symphony matched with an immersive animation show.

Bluebeard’s Castle, performed amid glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly. Photo courtesy Brud Giles, Portland Tribune

“We mapped the hall, and we projected all around the proscenium and behind the orchestra,” said Calmer. “In the quiet after one of the big movements, one audience member said really loudly, ‘That was f***ing awesome!’ I’d never experienced anything like that in my 30 years of orchestra management.”

The success of these productions led the orchestra to a three-concert project in which each of the concerts addresses a social issue through “a significant component of visual weight,” said Calmer. “We can’t take a particular stand, but we can convene the conversation. We decided to call it Sounds of Home.”

The first of these concerts celebrated immigration, for which the symphony commissioned a playwright and composer to create a play on the topic. An upcoming production addresses the topic of homelessness, with music by songwriter Gabriel Kahane (whose best-known work is Craigslistlieder, a song cycle in which he set Craigslist ads to music).

In between these, the symphony commissioned multimedia designer Matthew Haber of BeSide Digital to create a visual experience with the theme Search for Home — a presentation using Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as the centerpiece for a concert about the environment.

Haber and BeSide have plenty of experience in both literal and abstract imagery. With a background that includes retail clients, experiential themed entertainment, fashion, and even transforming Diane von Furstenberg’s runway models into live holograms during this year’s New York Fashion Week show, the company has the range and scope to tackle something as wide-ranging as the visual interpretation of classical music.

Haber eagerly accepted the opportunity to work with the orchestra. “It was a pretty cool collaboration,” he said. “As a stage designer, most things have more creative baggage attached — a script, a set. To have just music as the starting point and then relative freedom, that’s pretty unusual.”

Oregon Symphony’s 2018 The Rite of Spring. Photo by Brud Giles

‡‡         Bringing “Rite” to Life

The 35-minute piece of music, originally written for the 1913 performance season of the Ballets Russes in Paris, France, has an unusually controversial history. The choreographer Vasalav Nijinsky, known for breaking with ballet tradition, had his dancers perform the story Stravinsky wished to tell with his music — including a fairly graphic depiction of a young girl sacrificing her life to the pagan gods by dancing herself to death. The first performance led to a near-riot of protest in the audience. Indeed, listening to an orchestra perform the music can be a disquieting experience, with its abrupt changes in rhythm, its experiments with dissonance and its passages that lean toward tonality instead of melody.

Haber and the orchestra’s leadership chose to embrace the “Spring” intention of the music rather than the “Rite,” creating visuals that highlight the Oregon environment. “It’s not typical that one has a year and a half to work on a performance piece,” Haber observed. “So we could work during all four seasons. It was great to have a really long time to experiment with visual techniques.”

BeSide began by envisioning projection screens in overlapping shapes that could be sculpted with images to represent a cloudbank, a mountain range, or a sunset. One of these screens hung behind the orchestra, filling the back wall of the shell and extending to the full height of the proscenium, while the other hung downstage above and in front of the shell.

“It’s really hard to wrap our heads around what the environment means as humans,” Haber said. “We’re not up looking at the whole world from space, in that scale. We’re not looking at tiny things closely. So we’re missing so much of what’s out there to be seen.”

Haber, his scenic associate and a filmmaker took to the forests, mountains and beaches of Oregon to collect imagery. “One of the cool things about Oregon is that it has an unusually diverse ecosystem — rainforest, high mountains, desert and seashore, all in one state,” Haber said. “We spent some time in the desert shooting smoke and fire-filled time lapses and then on the seashore shooting ocean waves.”

Some of the images came from carefully controlled studio shooting. “In the studio, there was high spec and slow-motion stuff, things that look like fires and smoke and growing mold,” he said. “There’s a whole section of the show that’s all little fungi on a microscopic scale. You have things that are on a global scale and things that are too small to see.”

With the expansive Oregon outdoors from which to choose, Haber and his team had no shortage of concepts for the show. “I went into it knowing many of the ideas I wanted to play with, but we didn’t have the technology,” he said. “So we had to invent some things — everything from time lapse to things shot at hundreds of frames a second. We moved through literal time and abstract time pretty fluidly. You’ll see a real mountain and then something that’s only a mountain under a microscope.”

Once the images were captured, a team of skilled animators and filmmakers went to work to produce the material that would actually fill the 35 minutes of visuals surrounding the music. “In the studio we had about half a dozen people over time: 2D editors, compositors, colorists, a projectionist, my scenic associate and a programmer,” Haber said. “There were hundreds of cues, and the associate conductor and stage manager for the piece worked closely with us. It’s 500-plus separate pieces of media, so we needed the conductor to cue us to keep it locked up with the music. And then there are the projection services themselves. It was a big undertaking.”

To achieve the desired effects onstage, the orchestra provided four Panasonic PT-RZ12KU 12000 lumen 3-chip DLP laser projectors, which formed a double-stacked blended image on the upstage projection surface behind the orchestra. These projectors provided the high picture quality and 48,000 lumens of brightness that made BeSide’s imagery come to life — and they were nearly silent, so as not to distract from the music. The projection surface over the stage received its imagery from two Barco HDX-W20 FLEX 20000 lumen 3-chip DLP Projectors, forming blended images on the screens with 40,000 lumens of light output.

A disguise 4×4 Pro and a disguise gx2 drove the projectors, uniting the entire production with just two controllers. The 4×4 Pro can play up to thirty-two layers of content with fast processing speed, transferring large files in minutes using twin 10Gbit/sec Ethernet connectors. The disguise gx2 renders in real time, letting the images to respond to their environment and allowing the BeSide team to create imagery that moved fluidly with the varying tempos of the music and the conductor’s changes from one performance to the next.

The setting sun on moving water took place in time to the music of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Oregon Symphony photo by Brud Giles

‡‡Attracting the Target Audience

Mixing a traditional orchestral concert with a visual presentation — no matter how stunning — had the potential to attract criticism from the audience. For Search for Home, however, the raves are still coming in.

“I’m not really a symphony-goer, so I didn’t necessarily have a lot of idea about how this would be received by audiences who are not looking for visuals with their music,” Haber said. “If people go to the theatre and they don’t like the projections, it’s probably not going to spoil it for them. But this was so much a solitary contribution. It was hard to know what kind of response to expect.”

After the success of Bluebeard’s Castle and Turangalîla-Symphonie, however, Oregon Symphony had already raised positive expectations among the concert audience. “They had lines down the block to get tickets,” Haber said. “Audiences were coming up to me and telling me how excited they were to see it. You don’t know how people will receive it, but this went well.”

BeSide supported the performances with imagery that went from macroscopic landscapes to microscopic natural phenomena. Photo by Brud Giles

Some audience members may have expected something like a traditional movie, Calmer noted, but that’s not what BeSide had in mind. “Matthew’s work is full of kinetic movement all the time, totally different from just seeing a movie,” he said. “People really, really liked it. There was an interesting discussion among the concertgoers, comparing this production to last year — ‘Well, I liked this one better than the other.’ It’s interesting that they are talking about the visual, a different way to talk about an orchestra.”

Calmer credits the orchestra itself and its music director, Carlos Kalmar, for having the foresight to understand that an orchestra must blaze new trails in the 21st Century. “This orchestra will do anything it’s asked to do — they are great partners,” he said. “We work really hard to balance the repertory. Next year’s season has 21 works that have never been performed, and 18 percent of the works are by living composers. For an orchestra of this size, that’s a real statement. Otherwise we all fall back on what we know, and that’s not good enough.”


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