Classical Multimedia Live

Ben Simon conducting youth orchestra with Malinowski graphic in background

Ben Simon conducting youth orchestra with Malinowski graphic in background

San Francisco Chamber Orchestra leader Ben Simon took classical music forward into the multimedia age this evening at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley.  He led the Palo Alto (Youth) Chamber Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Great Fugue accompanied by YouTube virtuoso Stephen Malinowski projecting a synchronized visual animation of the score.  The effect was almost magical, and gave me a feeling of exhilaration, almost like being high, but intelligently high instead of drug-stupid high.  You could hear and see the music at the same time.  Seeing the music helped my ears pick out the different lines that different instruments were playing.  This was very helpful during complex passages, and during simpler parts the symmetry and structure of the visuals gave the sounds an additional depth and resonance in the brain.  Malinowskis’ visuals are a definite enrichment for the senses.

Kudos to the orchestra, composed of high school students except for one ringer in the cello section.  The Great Fugue, originally intended as final movement in his Quartet No. 13,  is said to be the most difficult chamber work Beethoven wrote, both to perform and to hear.  He was completely deaf at the time, and had grown indifferent to the musical conventions of his time.  Contemporary (1826) critics dumped on the piece (“repellent” was one of the kinder adjectives) and audiences hated it.  Beethoven returned the compliment: “Asses!  Cattle!”  His publisher prevailed on him to withdraw it from the quartet and substitute a different ending; it was then published separately.  It took a century for the times to catch up with Beethoven.  Stravinsky was the first major musical figure to heap praise on it, and today it’s a must-perform item for every ambitious string ensemble.  You would not think that high school performers could get through this killer work, but the kids from Palo Alto did a great job with it, keeping in time and tune even when Simon dropped his baton.  This is a very promising group.

Malinowski has been visualizing classical musical scores for twenty years, and his YouTube channel has hundreds of graphical animations synchronized with recorded pieces from all over the classical repertoire.  Some of the visuals are minimalist, with simple bars of different colors representing the different instrument voices.  Others have fancy and elaborate flowing animations that would be fun to watch even without the sound track.  But all of these are canned performances.  Tonight was different — the visual, projected on a big screen behind the musicians, was synchronized with the live performance.  Malinowski, at the laptop, had a control that kept the animation flowing in exact time with the musicians.

The audiences at classical performances tend to look like orchards of white hair. The aging of the demographic spells doom for classical music venues and performers alike, because in ten, twenty years most of those white heads will be pushing up daisies.  How to get younger people into the hall is the life or death question for everyone concerned with the future of the genre.

Davies Symphony Hall, the big gorilla in the local classical scene, has been fending off the seemingly inevitable by bringing in singers such as Dianne Reeves, Burt Bacharach, Liza Minelli, and others.  I don’t know if this is working.  It sounds to me like they have thrown in the towel on classical music and decided to convert into a pop venue half time to keep the lights on.

Stephen Malinowski has a huge following on YouTube.  His work is the essence of multimedia and multitasking, and it speaks the language of kids from 8 years on up who devour computer graphics, obsess on computer games, and cruise YouTube for hours.  Malinowski might just have the gateway drug to get them hooked on classical music.

In response to my question during a Q&A period, Malinowski said he writes a letter to Davies every year offering his work, and doesn’t even get the courtesy of a reply.  Shame on Davies Hall management!  Brain death has set in there.  As usual, it’s left to the little guys, like SFCO’s energetic and irreverent Ben Simon, to show the way forward.  Malinowski visuals would look terrific on a giant screen at Davies, and after an initial break-in period to get audiences used to it, might well become a standard feature, without which a performance would feel naked, like a Jefferson Starship performance at the old Avalon ballroom without a light show (horrors!).

There was one Luddite lady in the audience who said she hated the visuals.  Several people shouted out to her, “So just close your eyes.”   Amen.


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