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Using Music to Sell The Music

The San Francisco Symphony raises the benchmark for outreach programs.

by Drew McManus
June 21, 2004

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Beginning June 16th, PBS began to air a new documentary entitled “Keeping Score” which provides the viewer with a several different viewpoints into a performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. Unfortunately, PBS wasn’t able to have all of its members stations simulcast the program in a prime time slot, so you may not have the opportunity to see it. But the good news is that you can purchase a DVD copy from the PBS store.
 
The program details how several of the musicians from the San Francisco Symphony prepare for an upcoming performance. The producers feature those individual musicians by showing you their artistic off stage life and talking to them about what they do to prepare for a concert. The musicians also talk about the Tchaikovsky symphony they’re practicing and share their overall views regarding the piece of music as well as specific passages as they relate to their instrument.
 
Now, this isn’t exactly a unique concept, but where it becomes new is when they tie those personal segments into a family concert featuring the same music. Many of the same musicians communicate directly with the audience about their role in the orchestra during the family concert.
 
For example, the piccolo player talks about a very difficult solo she has to play. During her “at home” segment she talks in detail about the solo and you view some footage of her practicing it. Then the segment jumps right to the family concert and we see the same player addressing the audience with a condensed version of what you just heard. The really fun part is watching her play the solo in “battle conditions” as the entire orchestra plays through that passage.
 
Does she nail the solo and look like a hero or does she choke under the pressure? I won’t spoil the results; you’ll have to go watch the program.
 
Then there’s the segment that features the principal bassoonist. Instead of giving you the same format you just watched with the piccolo player, each instrument takes a different look at an aspect of the music and life in an orchestra. This is another production highlight of the program. With each instrumentalist, you get a new viewpoint of the ensemble and what life is like when it’s connected to the music.
 
The bassoonist talks about another passage from the symphony as well as the concert hall and his perception of the audience from where he sits on stage. It’s fascinating to hear about how the concert hall itself functions as an instrument that’s used by the musicians as much as the one in their hands.
 
Mixed in with the musician segments and commentary from the San Francisco Symphony’s music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, are clips from their family concert, which features a performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. You may think that such a heavy piece isn’t a good choice for a family concert designed to appeal to a novice audience, but the way its presented works wonderfully.
 
Via the concise dialog from musicians and the music director (with some help from a clapping game used to help illustrate an ostinato) the program takes a small number of features in the music and presents those to the audience. It’s simple, enjoyable, and enlightening all without watering down a standard large scale piece from the orchestral repertoire.
 
And that’s the best part of the program; they use the music to sell the music - or art for art’s sake. The program goes a long way toward proving that you really don’t need to create an ancillary reason for people to value classical music.
 
Bonus Material
 
One of the great residual effects of having the program produced in part by the San Francisco Symphony is that you’re virtually assured of having a nifty online multimedia component. And “Keeping Score” is no exception; from the main PBS page, you can find a mini web site devoted to additional education features, including a simple interactive guide to the instruments in an orchestra.
 
By clicking on a picture of each instrument you can watch one to three short videos highlighting that instrument performing an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.
 
Unfortunately, it appears that none of these online extras appear to be included on the DVD, but perhaps that will change in future editions. But that’s hardly a reason that should deter you from purchasing the DVD.

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