After an initial trial last year, the Ravinia Festival is once again using giant video screens for every Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert in its pavilion this season. Two 12-by16-foot screens flank the stage, giving listeners in Ravinia’s 4,000-seat pavilion an up-close-and-personal glimpse of the performers from percussion section to guest soloists.
In a recent evening of resplendent Wagner with Ravinia’s Music Director James Conlon leading the CSO, the screens delivered supertitles as well as close-ups of soloists Christine Brewer and John Treleaven. (Conlon and Treleaven were fresh off three cycles of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung in Los Angeles. From May 29 through June 26 Los Angeles Opera, where Conlon is also music director, presented the first fully integrated Ring cycles ever performed in that city.)
Not surprisingly, Ravinia’s screens are controversial. Welz Kauffman, Ravinia’s president and CEO says most of the response has been positive, but he understands the objections raised by some thoughtful music lovers. Big, flashy images of violinists sawing away or brass players turning purple as they hit those big notes can be distracting. I wonder how Brewer and Treleaven–who gave passionate performances as Brunnhilde and Siegfried under Conlon’s baton–felt to see most of the audiences’ eyes on one or the other video screen rather than on them.
The screens address one of Ravinia’s ongoing challenges, however. Chicago is prairie country, after all, and Ravinia’s 36 acres are basically as flat as an Iowa farm. The pavilion floor is raked, but audiences can’t see individual players very well, especially those in the orchestra's back rows. Putting the musicians on risers upsets the pavilion’s acoustical balance, according to Kauffman. Unlike some other outdoor venues, there is no natural bowl with sloping lawns from which picnickers can watch the action. Ravinia picnickers have dreamy views of towering trees and starry skies, but the stage is virtually invisible.
The screens add more than just another visual element to the Ravinia experience.. There is a psychological dimension as well. We are a society immersed in big screens. We were raised on Technicolor movies, and millions of us are falling in love with our elegantly slim, big-screen TVs. Intellectually, we know that big images are not necessarily more important than small ones. But viscerally, when we see a big, colorful moving picture, we pay attention. Someone thought this event was compelling enough to blow it up to larger-than-life size. The least we can do it give it a look.
There’s something stirring about seeing CSO acting principal clarinet John Bruce Yeh on a big screen digging into a particularly succulent bit of Wagner. Or watching a violin section as they somehow manage to keep an eye on their music stands, conductor and each other. The huge screens reinforce what we already know–that something of significance is happening and we should take note. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and a picture isn’t always worth a thousand words. But if big screens can remind us exactly how exciting the process of music-making can be, I say fire up the projectors.