Brandenburg Productions, Inc.
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Putting music to pictures


7-camera >orchestra= brings opening to PBS


By Michael Hill

Evening Sun Staff


     The analogy leapt out at you.  As Sergiu Commissiona twisted and strained, pulling the music out of the Baltimore Symphony, Phil Byrd twisted and strained, putting that music to pictures.

      Byrd is the director of the music portion of the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting’s two-hour special on the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall opening which will be over most PBS stations Saturday, Sept. 25 at 9 p.m.

      He spent last night inside a trailer full of electronics that was parked behind the hall, cables connecting it to the seven cameras that were trained on the stage.  The operators of those cameras plus the crew inside the trailer, were Byrd’s orchestra.

      He directed them as he spoke into his headset.

      “Five.  Ready two.”


     “Ready Six.  And zoom.  Eight, seven six, five.  Ready three.  Three.”

      A snap of the fingers switched the picture that was being recorded.  The changes came crisply and quickly during the fast, up-tempo parts of the program.  When the music was smoother and lusher, Byrd would command “Dissolve,” and the picture would fade from one to another.

      Byrd, an independent director with extensive experience on symphony broadcasts, was hired for this Maryland Center production several months ago.  In that time, he has taken the music scores of the pieces the symphony played and created the visual scores that his orchestra would follow.

      That consists of the series of shots for each of the cameras.  For the night’s longest piece, Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben, there were 291 separate shots planned for the 45 minutes.

      “I think music can be intrinsically visually interesting if the hall is right, if management lets you put the cameras in the right place and if the piece of music is right,” Byrd said.

     “Some fine pieces of music, like Schubert’s eighth, the ‘Unfinished Symphony,’ just don’t work on TV.  There’s not enough to it visually.  But this Strauss is very dense.  There are a lot of decisions to make.  It could be great if everything goes right.”

      Management let Byrd place five of his cameras along the right side of the stage, allowing one to sit right beside the piano during Leon Fleisher’s appearance.

      Byrd feels that most shots should be from one side so as not to confuse the viewer.  He sees his style as relying on quick cuts among the conductor and various individual members and sections of the orchestra, all aimed at enhancing the viewer’s understanding of what’s going on musically.

     “If it’s done right, the viewer doesn’t notice all the cuts,” Byrd said.  “They should learn something they did not know before about the music, the pictures should teach them.  But they shouldn’t be aware of why they are learning it.”

     Byrd’s work in Baltimore began Tuesday when he met with his crew for the first time at the symphony hall.  The camera operators and the various assistant directors went over the scores – the sheets listing the shots – as Byrd explained the basics of covering an orchestra.

      That afternoon, the camera operators were sitting in their places, learning the difference between a first oboe and a second clarinet.  By Wednesday, as the symphony rehearsed, the cameras rehearsed, Byrd conducting the shots, seeing which ones worked, and which ones needed work.

      “If everything goes right, I could get run over by a truck just before the symphony took the stage, and the show would still come off, pretty well, in fact,” Byrd said Wednesday.

      “It doesn’t bother me that these people are new to music productions.  You go to places where they do it all the time, and it’s ho-hum for everyone.  But for these people, it’s something special.  They’ll do just fine.”

      And indeed it was something special for this crew.  This hall opening is about as important to the Maryland Center as it is to the symphony.  This broadcast is the most ambitious the local public station has ever undertaken. At two hours, it is the longest.  And at a cost of $200,000, it is the most expensive.

      Today and over the weekend, the program is being edited under the guidance of producer Michael Styer.  Byrd can clean up his live recording by splicing in back-up shots recorded by an isolation camera.  Tony Randall’s narration and interview with Fleisher, along with a special segment on tuning the hall, all directed by John Alan Spoler, will be molded around the music.  The order of the music will be changed with Fleisher’s performance climaxing the television show.

      If the show goes well, if it impresses the national PBS audience, it could mean a great deal for the Maryland Center as far as national cultural broadcasts go.  And that could mean a great deal for local cultural institutions like the symphony.

      “It’s not like directing a baseball game,” Styer said as the visual interpretation of Strauss’ music appeared on the screens in the trailer.

     It was a statement Byrd had agreed with earlier.  “We know when the batter’s going to get a hit and when the fielder is going to make a great play.”

      As a result, the viewers expect more than a straight-forward documentation of the event.  They expect a work of art from this conductor and his electronic symphony.  A week from tomorrow, they find out if the Maryland Center can live up to their expectations.