By Paul Hyde
TV REVIEW – Let’s say you’re a classical music lover and you just won the lottery. Your next vacation abroad might very well resemble the sort of highly engaging jaunt violinist-conductor Scott Yoo enjoys in Great Performances: Now Hear This.
The new four-part PBS miniseries, making its premiere Sept. 20-Oct. 11 (check local listings), centers on such composers as Vivaldi, Bach, Scarlatti, and Handel. But Yoo, as the host, recognizes that today’s cultural traveler wants not only to hear great music but also to see the sights, eat a fine dinner, and maybe make a new friend or two.
Yoo himself describes the series as “Anthony Bourdain meets classical music.”
In the debut hour-long episode, Yoo chases the story of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons through Venice but also spends time visiting splendid churches and whizzing around in a vaporetto water bus, dreamily gazing at the architecture. Later, Yoo and two friends enjoy antipasto and a glass of wine while analyzing The Four Seasons, finding dogs barking and cuckoos chirping in the score.
Yoo, chief conductor and artistic director of the Mexico City Philharmonic, is a superb musical tour guide as he travels through Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and Morocco.
His enthusiasm is contagious. Offered the chance to play a few notes from the original manuscript of Vivaldi’s violin concerto known as L’Amoroso, Yoo seems entranced, almost in tears.
For Yoo, that was one of the highlights of making the episode called “Vivaldi: Something Completely Different,” he said in a recent interview.
“I’m looking at the handwriting of God, Vivaldi’s own handwriting,” Yoo said. “I’m reading Vivaldi’s music off the manuscript. I don’t think anyone else living has had that opportunity. That, for me, was a mind-bending experience.”
In his travels, Yoo follows his fancy, wherever it may lead. Noting that The Four Seasons, one of the most often-recorded works in history, was inspired by nature, Yoo takes the music to a Tuscan field to serenade an indifferent herd of sheep. For the viewer, it’s a delight.
Yoo’s tangents are always interesting. He visits with the violin-makers of Cremona, Italy, to discuss their ancient art. He chats with the versatile pianist Antonio Artese, who reharmonizes a Vivaldi tune in the manner of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bill Evans.
“The premise of the show is that I’m the everyman and I’m learning, and the audience is learning from me,” Yoo said.
This very personal style of documentary-making reminds me of Kenneth Clark’s classic Civilisation series. The first four documentaries have a clear voice – and it belongs to Yoo and writer/director Harry Lynch. Now Hear This is no dry lecture series but a spirited journey offering both insight and entertainment. It’s what PBS does so well.
The “Vivaldi” premiere is followed by hour-long episodes of “The Riddle of Bach” (Sept. 27), “Scarlatti: Man Out of Time” (Oct. 4), and “Handel: Italian Style” (Oct. 11).
Plans call to extend the series into the classical and romantic periods of music and beyond.
I caught up recently with Yoo, who spoke by phone from his home in Columbia, Mo., where he lives with his wife, the flutist Alice Dade.
Classical Voice North America: How did this series come about?
Scott Yoo: I was performing a concert of the three Brahms trios with two colleagues and I presented “A Notable Encounter” [Yoo’s series of pre-concert talks]. A man came backstage and said, “My name is Harry Lynch and I’m a producer for PBS and I think we should do a TV show.” It was just luck!
CVNA: How did you design the format of the series?
SY: I wanted to come up with a legitimate successor to the Young People’s Concerts that Leonard Bernstein did years ago. The original idea was to film a bunch of “Notable Encounters” [discussions about composers from the stage]. But Harry Lynch and I agreed that we wanted there to be other culture – an art tour, a bit of history. Harry suggested it have a travel component. What it gradually morphed into was “Anthony Bourdain meets classical music.” It’s mostly about music, but we want to show how culture affects music and music affects culture.
CVNA: It sounds like you patterned it on the foodie revolution, with Americans becoming more conscious of the source, quality, and cultural backdrop of what they eat.
SY: Yes, we’re trying to accomplish what happened with food. I think art music or classical music is something that should really be a part of everyone’s life because it’s great and it’s cool. It’s really wonderful stuff, there’s something in it for everyone, and it’s still relevant to the human experience today.
CVNA: Did you learn a lot from the experience of making these documentaries?
SY: The biggest surprise for me was that until the 1940s Vivaldi was essentially the composer of The Four Seasons and a couple of operas. Everything else he wrote, for all intents and purposes, did not exist. And then someone accidentally bumped into a number of boxes and they realized, Oh my God, that’s the work of Antonio Vivaldi! I did not know that before filming the pilot. Harry, the director, asked me not to research Vivaldi. He wanted me to be surprised on screen. Stuff like that was really mind-bending.
CVNA: How long does it take to film each hour-long episode?
SY: Shooting was two weeks per episode, and then I do the voiceovers in the studio. We shot the pilot two years ago in May, 2017. Harry Lynch does all the writing. I feel like I’m working on it every day – in addition to my day job!
CVNA: What does the future hold for the series?
SY: We’ve already filmed the first show in Season 2 about Haydn. We’ll probably shoot documentaries also on Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. We’re doing it chronologically. We’re also putting together a university course to offer for free, with Now Hear This as a textbook. We think that can make a big impact. We want to get people listening to this kind of music when they’re young. We hope the show will go on for seven, eight, nine years. The idea is that it might not only cover the major composers, but we might have an episode on such topics as the flute or Indian classical music.
CVNA: How do you feel as Now Hear This is about to premiere before a national audience?
SY: I’m really proud of the work we’ve done. I think they’re really good TV shows with good content. I find them fun to watch. I hope everyone else does.
Paul Hyde, a longtime arts writer in Greenville, S.C., is a lecturer in English at Clemson University. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.