An Inside Story

Classic Arts Features   An Inside Story
Gerard McBurney's multimedia explorations of groundbreaking works, called Inside the Music, begin this month at the New York Philharmonic.

Gerard McBurney, creator and host of the Philharmonic's upcoming Inside the Music programs, grew up in Cambridge, England, the son of an American father who worked at a museum that resembled a 19th-century cabinet of curiosities. "It was dusty and filled with all kinds of things," Mr. McBurney recalls. "American Indian totem poles, shrunken heads, and the like. My sister, my brother, and I would spend hours wandering around the basement, exploring and opening up our imaginations. It was the best kind of education."

It also may have been the best preparation for the eclectic career that Mr. McBurney has enjoyed on both sides of the Atlantic: he has turned his hand to writing music for the concert hall and theater; to creating theater pieces with his brother, Simon, founder of the experimental company Complicité; to making television and radio documentaries; and to writing and editing for books and magazines.

All of those experiences have uniquely equipped him to create Inside the Music. Variously described as "live documentaries" and "theater pieces," these presentations (which reflect the format Mr. McBurney created for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Beyond the Score series) is a theatrical experience in which a composition is treated as a character, whose interior workings and historical context are explored through the use of multiple media. Each 8:00 p.m. event will begin with a 50-minute presentation and conclude with a complete performance of the work under discussion: on December 14, Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, conducted by Andrey Boreyko; on March 14, Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero's Life"), conducted by Philharmonic Music Director Designate Alan Gilbert.

To create these programs, Gerard McBurney has dipped into a bag of tricks as varied as the items in his father's museum. For the Shostakovich — a composer near and dear to the host, who studied in Russia and speaks the language — he chose early sound films to serve as a visual metaphor.

"One of the things I most enjoyed," says Mr. McBurney, "was the chance to look at rare archival footage from the 1930s — some of it pretty horrifying. I cut this footage to make my own movie, and we also use a lot of beautiful Stalinist posters. Some very great artists worked on that awful propaganda material; it's very double-edged."

Such ironies and ambiguities permeate this program, reflecting the controversies that have long swirled around Shostakovich and his music, of which Mr. McBurney has written: "Is it any good or not? Is it of visionary power and originality … or, as others think, derivative, trashy, empty and second-hand? … Was he a communist or a communist-hater? A modernist or a reactionary?" Inside the Music audiences will have to decide for themselves because, as Mr. McBurney says, "I don't want these programs to be an explanation. They are a kind of soup bowl of 40 or 50 possible explanations."

For his March presentation on Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, Mr. McBurney turned to the work's domestic themes for inspiration, and chose photography as a way to probe Strauss and his times. "This was the great age of the family photograph — domestic bourgeois photography," Mr. McBurney observes, adding that he feels that Strauss's piece reflects the family at its most intimate. "The love music is all about Mr. and Mrs. Strauss in the bedroom. On one level it's embarrassing; on another level it is incredibly innovative."

That love music will play an important part in Mr. McBurney's program. "We will put Strauss's sketch of the music on the enormous screen, and you will see his hand moving across the page — you will experience what it's like to write music. Then we have a pianist playing very gently that very simple melody, which then morphs into the orchestral version. It's like looking at a black and white photo morphing into color."

He hopes to provide "something for everyone: If you're a musician, you can marvel at Strauss's skill; to a less experienced listener — even a child — it's like playing with red, blue, and yellow blocks, and then putting them together to get Technicolor."

When discussing his "shows," as he calls them, Mr. McBurney is adamant that his intention is not to instruct or analyze, but rather "to release something in the way we listen. I want to open the pores of people's skin so that they can engage with their own imaginations." He concludes: "The payoff is that after intermission you get to hear a performance of the piece and you can think about whatever you like; our program is gone and you're just naked with the music."

Madeline Rogers is the former Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.

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