Brandenburg Productions, Inc.
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Kansas City Star TV & Radio, March 15-March 21, 1987


Director captures Symphony with a camera


By Blake A Samson

The Star’s music editor


        Phillip Byrd sat in a darkened van facing rows of television monitors. That might not be most people’s idea of the best way to see the Kansas City Symphony, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson or the many shows Byrd has seen.

        To be sure, he enjoys an aisle seat as much as the next person. But Byrd was in Kansas City the first week of February to direct taping of the Symphony for broadcast on PBS.

       The 90-minute program, conducted by William McGlaughlin and featuring pianist Aldo Ciccolini, will be shown in the Kansas City area at 8 p.m. Wednesday by KCPT, Channel 19.

        Drawn from concerts Feb 6 and 7, it begins with Hector Berlioz’s overture to “Benvenuto Cellini” and ends with the Mussorgsky-Ravel “Pictures at an Exhibition.”  In between are Ciccolini’s performances of Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” and Richard Strauss’ “Burleske.”

       The tape then will be edited to an hour program for future national distribution.

        “What needs to be done is for us to put on a great show,” McGlaughlin said at the start of taping.  “A year ago I was on my way here to talk to the committee searching for a new conductor.  I had no idea what level of orchestra Kansas City had.  Indeed 15 months ago, I barely knew there was still an orchestra in Kansas City.  I certainly had no idea the orchestra was this good.

       “There’s a whole picture of Kansas City in the greater world that’s incomplete,” he said.  “This broadcast, therefore, is very important, for it gets the message across in the strongest way possible.  Viewers will be able to judge for themselves.”

       In February a large semitrailer, painted white, with chrome and steel steps leading to three anonymous doors, was parked on Central Street by the Lyric Theatre.  Byrd, his associate director Elaine Warner and music supervisor Janet Shapiro worked inside.   Lighting director Ferd Manning, audio producer Bill Hoekstra and KCPT program director Dave Welsh scurried in and out.

       A hank of wires left the van, ran along the sidewalk into the Lyric and wound down the aisles to seven cameras. 

       “Remember when we did everything with two cameras,” Byrd joked.  With 12 crew members from KCPT and five freelance technicians, he said he was in good shape.  “However, there’s always Byrd’s axiom: No matter how many cameras you give a director, he’ll want two more.

        “Using the score as our blueprint,” Byrd said, “the whole show is scripted shot to shot.  We will shoot it like a live show but some things will be edited later.  That gives us choices.  Also it’s a way to cover ourselves.”

        Byrd’s New York-based Brandenburg Productions Inc. recently produced “Wolf Trap Presents the Kirov: Swan Lake.”  It won the 1986 Emmy for classical programming.  He also has taped the National,Atlanta and Chicago symphony orchestras for television.

        “This is about as close I can get to being a conductor without holding a stick in my hands,” Byrd said.  He had ambitions for a music career, he said, having once played first trombone int the Army band.  “Conceivably that’s what I could be doing, except I wound up in radio and television.”

       A huge computer printout was in the front of his, “the hymnal,” Byrd said.  “Every shot is fairly explicit.  I’m looking for pretty pictures.  Shoot into the wood.  Violins, violas and cellos.  That makes pretty pictures.  We also get a lot of mileage out of French horns.  All that plumbing,  Remember also that the musicians may hang you up by leaning forward to turn a page of music.  Also don’t give me shoes, architecture or big alleys of space.”

       The Friday dress rehearsal would be the camera crew’s only rehearsal.

        “That’s when we find out what works and doesn’t work,” Byrd said.  “It’s not a perfect art.”  He would say that often during the week.

       As the local crew usually shoots sporting events, he had some particular advice for them.  “I have to warn you about a bad habit musicians have.  They tend to leave their instruments on the floor when they’re not playing.  Therefore, never take a step backward.”

        The difference between what the crew usually does and shooting a concert is that “we’ll know exactly where each play will be.  Remember, however, we’re not just covering an event.  We’re here to serve the music.  We’re looking for one gorgeous picture after another to fit the musicians making one beautiful gorgeous sound after another.”

        Inside the command truck during the test taping, there was not so much tension as a “poised to kill” atmosphere.  It was not unusual to see Byrd leap out of his chair, call out a shot and nail it down with a sweep of his arms that could only be compared to conducting.

        Byrd sat in front of a copy of the conductor’s score.  Warner and Shapiro were to his right.  One alerted the crew to upcoming shots.  The other moved a pointer for bar to bar in the score, keeping Byrd on track.  Byrd poured a stream of instructions into his headset.

       “Is there a better violin shot to the right?  Maybe not?  Flag 23.  That’s not one of the greatest shots of our time. Can you go in tighter?  That’s about it?  Flag it.  Is there any piece of music around that you can give me? Flag 50 and 51.  We have a sticky zoom on camera 7.  That’s the framing.  That’s the shot I want.  Very nice. Flag 99.  There’s no way he can move to that shot.  I really love it when his hand comes toward the camera.  Make a note at 363.  I want to add a trumpet.  The stuff that winds up in the background can be really nifty.  I’m not sure you’ll get the snare drum on 7.  We may move that to 4.”

        For each shot , there were two voices: Elaine Warner forewarned the next shot.  Byrd then cued the shot.

        “We’ve got this down,” he said after the last shot.  “Now I’ve just got to move a few things around.

       “With a computer I have,” he said, “I can make a change on the master shot list.  It will change it on the individual shot lists. The lists and scores should agree, but we do these things at 2 in the morning.  Mistakes do get made.  This isn’t brain surgery, happily.  We can recover one way or another.  If it’s there, we’ll shop for it tomorrow.”

       A few hours before curtain Feb. 6, Byrd reflected.

        “The ability to get close to the players in the Lyric makes this a unique situation.  The show is going to be very intimate as a result.

       “Sometimes, the cutting is very painterly.  Sometimes it’s not.  The object is to be musical, too.  We have to phrase the pictures the way the music is written.

        “First you sit down and carve up the piece of music, taking into consideration what hardware is available.  I spent about 40 to 60 hours with the scores, developing a visual vocabulary.  Every show has its own characteristics.”

        Janet Shapiro added, “Phil has a sensitivity to the organizations he tapes.  He’s able to get everything done with a minimum of disturbance.  For the most part the concert will happen as if we aren’t there.”

        Byrd agreed: “If the shots are done well, the audience will never see them.  What I hope happens is that we’ll go through a string of shots and the audience won’t be aware that we’ve changed shots.  They’ll only see the right thing to be seen at the right time and think it’s very musical.”