Famine. Riots. Crime. Prostitution. Budapest, Hungary, is ravaged by revolution. Stark video footage reveals despair and unrest. Over these images, an actor at a podium reads in a pounding voice, "It is the individual struggle to exist in the metropolis." A narrator interjects. "These struggles represent everything art strives against." Suddenly, a live orchestra bursts into the chaotic opening bars of Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin. In this particular live performance, music, politics, and drama are one.
Such is the experience at a "Beyond the Score" concert. The series consists of three concerts (Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin on October 6, followed by Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in April and June).
Charles Dutoit, chief conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra, wanted to expand on the idea of traditional music performances after conducting "Beyond the Score" presentations himself in Chicago.
"I love this way of presenting music with historical and political contexts," the Swiss maestro said over the phone from his hotel in Colorado, during The Philadelphia Orchestra's residency at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. "This is the way I would teach myself and this particular series is at a much higher level than anything I've ever seen before."
Such praise belongs to the mastermind behind the series: Cambridge, England, native and now creative director of "Beyond the Score," Gerard McBurney. As a composer, lecturer, and BBC3 host for more than 20 years, he's a natural narrator who can take apart musical scores with ease. The result is an absorbing one-hour presentation that blends video screen images, theater, and live orchestral samples on demand. After intermission, the work is then played in its entirety.
"I want people to swim in this music," McBurney said by phone from his summer home in London. "Don't freeze in front of it. It's not going to eat you. Listen to it from the bottom, from the side, and then run through it," he says. McBurney estimates that it takes him about a year to create each new presentation, so it's vital to him that he's opening up the music in new ways.
"Above all else that is important," he says. "I want to give listeners a sense that this music is there for them and that there are thousands of different ways to listen to it." McBurney, who will join The Philadelphia Orchestra as host of its "Beyond the Score" presentations, likes to think he isn't explaining the music but rather suggesting alternative ways to hear it.
For Philadelphians the series might sound vaguely similar to the already-existing "Access" concerts. Brought on board by former Music Director Wolfgang Sawallisch and later revived in the 2005-06 concert season, the series was designed for listeners who were new to or curious about classical music. The concert host and the conductor used explanations and musical excerpts to take listeners on a behind-the-scenes tour of the musical process. Each concert then closed with a full performance of the featured work. The Orchestra wanted that series to evolve and "Beyond the Score" seemed its perfect fulfillment.
After Dutoit had conducted "Beyond the Score" presentations in Chicago of Holst's The Planets and Musorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, he requested that he take the series to Philadelphia. The conductor thinks "Beyond the Score" won't frighten audiences because it's far from being a drab academic exercise. "This isn't one of those 'blah blahs' about music," he laughs, adding that the theatrical element is what makes the series so fun and convincing.
While the series was launched proper in Chicago in 2005, the idea began a decade ago when McBurney and his brother, Simon, a famous English theater director and film actor, were jointly asked by Lincoln Center to collaborate with the Emerson String Quartet. The Emerson had recently recorded the complete Shostakovich string quartet cycle and had wanted the brothers to illuminate the "intolerably bleak" Fifteenth Quartet. By fusing live performance, video projections, and a dose of drama, the groundwork for "Beyond the Score" had been laid.
In January 2004, during the debut season of Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen asked the McBurneys to present Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique in the new venue. Critics and fans were impressed at how a warhorse had suddenly become new again. Chicago Symphony Vice President for Artistic Planning and Audience Development Martha Gilmer saw the presentation and asked Gerard McBurney if he'd consider joining the Symphony full-time.
"What was really amazing to me is that they were asking me to do a live show," McBurney says looking back on his first season. "The first few shows I didn't know how to do it," he recalls of his trial runs with Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony. He quickly learned what musical examples worked and what ones didn't. "Some samples were much too timid. It took a lot of time to strip the music apart and hear what was inside it," he said.
Since McBurney is so thrilled about the live aspect of his job, he has very strong opinions about the degenerative nature of recordings, which he says encourages people to listen one- dimensionally. "Here I am with an enormous record collection that I really don't listen to anymore," he declares. "Now I'm in my 50s and I want to listen to live music. I'd much rather go to a live rock concert than hear a string quartet on record. I want to see people sweating. I want to see people grappling with it."
Dutoit agrees that there are other factors that can make the listening experience stronger. He says that since we live in a visual world now, it's much more striking, for instance, to hear a page of Bartók by seeing all the political events that surrounded it.
The series may be groomed to attract the layman, but it provides value for even the most accomplished veterans. When the Finnish conductor and Sibelius expert Osmo Vänskä recently came to Chicago to conduct the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, the maestro approached McBurney after a show with a remark that every music teacher dreams of hearing: "You've made me hear what I haven't heard before."
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