Video Killed the Program Book

Your mission: program the best new music from wherever, to be played by Chicago Symphony musicians, in the Harris Theater — a 1500-person capacity theater with lots of high-tech stagecraft.  The concert series: MusicNOW.  Opening date of the 2011-12 season: October 17.

First thought: that’s a lot of ears to bring to anywhere, let alone a contemporary concert music.

Second thought: Chicago Symphony players.  Nice…

Third thought: stagecraft?  Hm….

One thinks of the Chicago Symphony and names like Solti and Abado and, these days, Muti come to mind.  Not exactly an ‘open mic’ situation.  The guilded Symphony Center resembles an Italian opera house in both acoustic and décor, and the CSO has rivaled any of the great orchestras.

But the CSO has lived a sleek existence outside the walls of Symphony Center for almost two decades.  It’s called MusicNOW.

When I first talked with Anna Clyne, my co-conspirator in the resident composer post, we both agreed to take the series in the direction of immersive concert experiences with omnivorous stylistic appetites.  A violin concerto by Finnish master Kaija Saariaho, a new commission by electronica duo Mouse on Mars, a visit by African instrument builder Victor Gama.  Rigorous pieces of the French IRCAM school to mystical, almost ambient works by Marcos Balter.  All brought to life with fluid and inviting stagecraft.

That’s where the program book comes in — or, more accurately, bows out.

Many classical listeners cherish their program books.  The content, however, need not be limited by the medium.  Think about lighting.  A printed program book requires relatively bright house lights, and there’s an opportunity cost when one bypasses the magic of music in near-darkness.  Imagine isolated pools of light presenting various ensembles for the evening, linked by cinematic program notes.

Enter Phillip Huscher.

His office looks as you’d imagine the CSO program annotator’s office would: papers, books, scores, CD liner notes everywhere.  When presented with the idea of ‘digital program notes,’ he was surprisingly game.  Paired-down program notes, projected in between pieces — with short video interviews with composers — that seemed an interesting challenge to Phillip.  Soon Anna and Phillip and I are sending scripts back and forth to Hillary Leben, the visual designer behind the CSO Beyond the Score multi-media shows.  More meetings than you’d ever imagine.

In the end, what’s most important is the music.  And we had great performances of excellent works by Corigliano to Dennehy, in a season that will feature works by Aaron Kernis, Evan Zipporan, Lee Hyla, and many more.  But often overlooked is the concert experience, and it’s especially important in a genre as challenging as contemporary music.  Communication and information, brought to life with the tools of our Information Age: forget the professor.  Let’s call the lighting guy, Todd, and ask him about gobo-lights on the solo fiddle player who opens the show.

Come visit us next month, when Hubbard Street Dance presents new choreography to Julia Wolfe, or the rest of the season (info).

And bring a flashlight.