Visual Aids in Live Performances

Classical buffs wary of letting eyes have it
By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Music Critic
In the anti-MTV world of classical music, there’s rarely been a video screen that didn’t make great music seem worse.
Years ago, the Philadelphia Orchestra offered close-ups of Yo-Yo Ma on video screens at the Academy of Music; core audience members left, threatening to cancel subscriptions. The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia used all manner of visuals in its concerts up through last season, but stopped in response to mixed audience reaction and a financial climate that lends itself more to consolidation than experimentation.
Even opera, which was written to be seen as well as heard, is controversial in direct proportion to the amount of onstage visual activity, whether it’s Franco Zeffirelli’s hyper-realistic extravaganzas at the Metropolitan Opera or slide projects used at the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Some of it has been done well; a lot of it has not.
And yet: Screens were back last week at Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, as demanded by Tan Dun’s The Map, which was written to enshrine videos of provincial Chinese musicians. Though there were a few audience walk-outs, the piece was basically embraced by the Friday-afternoon senior-citizen crowd and Saturday family audiences.
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