New York Philharmonic: The Virtual Philharmonic

Classic Arts Features   New York Philharmonic: The Virtual Philharmonic
The New York Philharmonic has released four original Web features that give an insider's look at the worlds and works of creators whose music is being performed this season.

Who knew that as a child, composer Steven Stucky listened so obsessively to his parents' only two records (Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Dvoršk's New World Symphony) that they took him to a doctor? Or that Lionel Party, the Orchestra's Harpsichordist, is an expert not only on J.S. Bach's music, but on the lives of his 21 children, including the one who ran off to study law?

Visitors to the Philharmonic's Website, that's who. Newly released on video are four "Web features" : original, short-length videos, designed for Web viewing. These high-definition videos utilize the same user-friendly viewing platform as the Webcast of the Orchestra's historic concert in Pyongyang, North Korea. The Web features will give anyone with Internet access a behind-the-scenes view of several programs that Music Director Lorin Maazel will conduct during the 2008 _09 season: the six-concert cycle of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, and three Philharmonic commissions, by Steven Stucky, Bernard Rands, and Aaron Jay Kernis.

The new Web features are produced and directed by Douglas Biro, of Hudson River Films, and Elizabeth Hummer, his partner for these projects. They use several cameras simultaneously, and their approach is as creative as the subjects they portray. The finished Web features are distillations of hours and hours of taped interviews, recording sessions, and neighborhood walks with the composers, enriched by painstaking research. Vince Ford, the Philharmonic's Director of New Media, is excited: "Doug and Elizabeth are experts on presenting people's stories and personalities. These videos will give our audiences a different perspective than they might normally have : something very personal."

For the Bach feature, the filmmakers zoom in through several "lenses." One focus is on the performers: Mr. Party, who has a prominent role in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps and Associate Principal Viola Rebecca Young, who have starring roles in the Sixth. The musicians beautifully demonstrate, through their playing and their comments, the dance origins and courtly aspects of the Brandenburgs. At the recording session, Ms. Phelps and Ms. Young, stand-mates for many years, also displayed something else: their potential as stand-up comediennes. When Mr. Party explained why he thought Bach's most creative period followed his second marriage, at age 35 to a gorgeous 19-year old (who would bear 13 of his children), one of the violists retorted, "Hey, this is a family show!" Though that remark did not make the final cut, the lively camaraderie did.

This video also features James M. Keller, the Philharmonic's Program Annotator since 2000, and the Leonard Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence for 2008 _09. During his interview, Mr. Keller recalled that when he was in sixth grade a librarian agreed to break up a display to lend him an LP because the cover had caught his eye. That record was of the Brandenburg Concertos; listening to it kindled his lifelong love for classical music. As Douglas Biro explains: "Hear-ing from people with this sort of passion infuses every moment of a video. It helps bring an extra enthusiasm that we hope the viewer will feel."

The Web features about three of the composers whom the Philharmonic commissioned this season reveal fascinating details, both personal and professional. Bernard Rands can be seen in his rustic retreat in the Berkshires, and Aaron Jay Kernis with his twins on a street in New York's Washington Heights. Steven Stucky talks about the value of the limitations that sometimes accompany commissions. The Web player's bonus features include his elaboration of Lorin Maazel's brief yet pointed requests, "to remember that there are some very great players in this Orchestra, and that this Orchestra is very good at rhythm. Then he suggested that he wanted the piece to be 'rhapsodic.'" That is why, according to the composer, in the resulting work, titled Rhapsodies for Orchestra, "all the members of the Orchestra get to 'sing' in different ways, like excited 'bird chatter.'" All together, Mr. Maazel's input was galvanizing: "It ended up helping me produce a different sort of piece than I might have."

Similarly, the challenge of creating these videos was enjoyable for the filmmakers. "We distill hours of footage into the essence of the story," Mr. Biro explains. "We try to synthesize all the insights and atmosphere we've captured into the most compelling four-minute piece." He adds, "Of course, it isn't radio, so we tell our story through a visual language that suits and even enhances the content." Since Web viewing has become more viable : "the videos load quickly, and there is better quality," Elizabeth Hummer says : the experience is more engaging than ever. As for the subject matter, "We can make more interesting content for the Web than for, say, television," Ms. Hummer explains, "because people are looking for something particular when they go to a site like the Philharmonic's."

The Philharmonic hopes that die-hard classical music lovers and more casual audiences will find their way to these videos. "We strive to reach as many people as possible with our digital content. Eventually the Web features will also be on the Philharmonic's official pages on Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube," Mr. Ford says. "If you're chatting with your friends on Facebook, if you're buying tickets on the Philharmonic's site, if you subscribe to our podcasts, you can watch the videos."

The creation of these Web features has a simple goal: to share a passion for the music that the Orchestra performs. "Maybe people will learn something new about Bach, or maybe they'll learn something new about our wonderful musicians," Mr. Ford concludes. "We hope that people online, both here in New York and around the world, will find their way to them, enjoy them, and get something from the experience."

Stephanie Stein Crease is a journalist and author who writes about classical music and jazz.

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