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A Concert Hall Experiences Beyond the Score

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Creatively showing the music in context and adding visual texture to its genesis seems to be the hot ticket when it comes to efforts to increase its appeal for today’s music audiences. That goes for new music’s live performances set in alternative settings, as well as for some motivating approaches within traditional venues, namely the concert hall. This multi-faceted approach reaches a zenith when seeing and listening to the Chicago Symphony’s outreach program, Beyond the Score.

Beyond The Score bannerGeared to educate newcomers and enhance their curiosity as well as to engage the regular audience, Beyond the Score has proven to be an attractive and efficient attention getter for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and others are following suit. The resourcefulness of its “sexy” productions, as well as its artistically high standard, has gained Beyond the Score a reputation reaching way beyond its educational value.
In its 6th year now, each multimedia production of a Beyond the Score program selects a particular work of music, presenting aspects of that work integrating live musical examples with a narrator following a theatrical storyline, images projected onto a screen over the stage, and/or different sound effects, correlating to its historic background and aesthetic content. After the intense and creative examination of the selected work, the audience returns after intermission to hear the work performed in its entirety, bringing a new outlook and level of understanding along to the concert hall experience.

Coined as “edutainment”, by Playbillarts, Beyond the Score was brought to the Philadelphia Orchestra by its chief conductor Charles Dutoit in 2009, after he had conducted some of these types of presentations in Chicago.

“I love this way of presenting music with historical and political contexts,” Dutoit was quoted saying. “This is the way I would teach myself and this particular series is at a much higher level than anything I have ever seen before … this isn’t one of those ‘blahblahs’ about music. Adding the theatrical element is what makes the series so fun and convincing.”


Pierre Boulez, on beyondthescore.org, addresses such questions as, is it really necessary to re-invent the music’s score, to analyze its zeitgeist and spell it out for an audience? Is the music not enough? He offers that a work of art is never born out of nothing:”It speaks more in depth, if you know more about the language of the composer, what he wants to express and how he wants to express it.”

The series got started officially in Chicago in 2005, as the brainchild of English native Gerard McBurney and it was taken up by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under its vice president for artistic planning and audience development and executive director of Beyond the Score, Martha Gilmer.

I had the opportunity to meet Gilmer on her turf, in between rehearsals of the orchestra with celebrated Ricardo Muti, Chicago’s Symphony Hall’s recently welcomed conductor. Gilmer explained: ”There are hundreds of orchestras reaching out to their audiences but our way to communicate with audiences is unique. The opportunity to experience a variety of cultural art forms, history, literature, poetry, visual arts, posters, graphics, film…written word, spoken word, dramatic presentations integrated into the realm of a live performance of a musical work, makes for a completely new experience and our audiences really leaped for that.

When I saw McBurney’s presentation of ‘Strange Poetry’ in 2004 for the opening of Walt Disney Hall, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and music director Esa-Pekka Salonen at the time, I knew I had found my partner to help bring classical music to a larger audience. I had seen something that had changed my understanding of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, into an entirely new experience.”

That production was a collaboration of Gerard McBurney with his brother, theater director Simon McBurney, with whom he had already created the very successful production of Lincoln Center’s “Noise of Time,” a multimedia presentation for the Emerson Quartet’s Shostakovich performance in 2000.

Gilmer describes seeing the strong emotional response the audience had as being part of the attraction. She remembers a particular affecting reaction to a Shostakovich presentation, which evoked the political repression of the Stalin era, disallowing his 4th Symphony to be performed at the time of its composition. The scenery was supported by typical propaganda posters of the communist era that read:”Is music dangerous?”

A man in the audience stood up during McBurney’s narrative and shouted:”Long live the 3rd International!” which people thought to be part of the scripted performance. “This outburst showed me that yes, music is potentially dangerous. It’s emotionally affecting,” according to Gilmer’s account.
Eventually, in 2009, Gerard McBurney joined the staff of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as artistic advisor and artistic director of Beyond the Score.

He definitely possesses the gift of communicating his enthusiasm for Beyond the Score, which came out even during our brief chat. In his creative hands, the score becomes a blueprint with many possibilities.

Gerard McBurneyThe challenge lies in finding what speaks most about the essence of the work of music and then to present these essential elements within a bigger context. In the process, he is de-fragmenting the score into all its facets, immersing himself into each detail which will make for a convincing re-creation.

”[F]or each work that will be something different … and it depends on the availability of artists as well as some lucky coincident.”

As an example, he describes the production of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” for which he, instead of depicting its historically known scandalous ballet production, rather chose another inherent musical component. The melodies, used by Stravinsky, were based on folksongs and, upon further explorations, rooted in Ukrainian traditional wedding songs. A specialist in this dying out art form was located in the Ukraine (thanks to the Chicago connection), and using a local choir within the Chicago area, broadcast it for the event.

“It created an astounding effect,” recalls McBurney, who, beyond the detailed orientation has a fascinating outlook on the bigger picture. ”I never quite know exactly what the final creation will add up to, until it’s being performed. Every piece of art is individual, has its own language and needs to be re-created in a different way and with different means.

For Vivaldi’s “Vier Jahreszeiten,” McBurney was looking for a visual means to associate the different species of birds evoked in the musical score. Available bird prints did not match the 18th century style of the music, until he retrieved Bird Illuminations, part of an original 18th century collection of Venetian prints. Copies had to be made and sent from the Italian collection the following day, just in time for the performance.

”Things like this just work through the friendships built during the last 35 years of my collected experiences, in the many different fields I have worked in as writer, composer, producer. … I consider myself a gypsy in the world of music, and this is where all the threads are coming together for me,” says McBurney, as we leave Symphony Hall on his way to another appointment.

The learning experience as an art form in itself may even bring back the community factor to the concert hall. It’s something that’s missing most of all.

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About Ilona Oltuski