Brandenburg Productions, Inc.
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The Perfect Vision

July/August 1999


Keeping It Real

Producing Classical Music for Television




     Maybe a year ago, I was at a concert at Lincoln Center, and the two people sitting next to me seemed interesting.  Turned out they were Phillip Byrd and Janet Shapiro, a husband-wife team who produce and direct classical music shows for TV, working under the name Brandenburg Productions.  But there were two things I didn’t know at the time.  First was how much they’ve done – endless shows, classical and pop, shown locally and nationally on PBS, many with important orchestras like the St. Louis and the Houston symphonies.

     And the second thing I didn’t know was how good they are.  They sent me a tape of a show they’d shot in Miami with Michael Tilson Thomas with the New World Symphony, and it knocked me out.  This is a training orchestra with young musicians who are excited both to play and to talk about themselves on camera.  Janet and Phillip filmed them preparing four movements from Beethoven symphonies – and then followed that with complete performances, so we could see the results of the students’ work.

     One moment especially stood out.  Toward the end of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, the orchestra stops, leaving only a single oboe to play.  We’d met the oboist earlier in the film, and heard her thoughts about the passage.  When we got to that point in the performance, as Janet and Phillip filmed it, the orchestra dropped out visually as well, and suddenly we saw the oboist all alone on stage, nakedly exposed, playing her solo.

      I was moved when I saw that. Rarely, I thought, does a film of a classical performance so truthfully capture both what the music is about, and how the musicians feel when they’re playing it.  So I asked Janet and Phillip if they’d talk with me about their work.  To my surprise, we didn’t talk much about oboes or Beethoven.  Instead, we kept returning to the basic mechanics – and basic aesthetics – of what they do.  These subjects were new to me, ranging from how you use cameras to the challenges of HDTV, and I suspect they’ll be just as new and just as informative for everyone else who reads this.


Greg Sandow:  Yesterday I was at a party for Alfred Brendel, to celebrate among other things his new recording of the Beethoven piano concerti.  So they showed an electronic press kit, and it begins with him playing part of the second concerto.  And just as you’re drawn into it and don’t want him ever to stop, the voiceover begins.


Janet Shapiro:  Actually we’ve just been having this very discussion about a project I’m editing right now.  It’s a documentary, or maybe a kind of hybrid – performances with documentary elements, about a barbershop quartet convention and competition.

Phillip Byrd: Some of the things that happen with barbershop take longer than you’d like them to take. We give a lot of attention to a crazy quartet called Fred that does very funny things.  Where another quartet will round out a performance in two and a half minutes, Fred can take seven minutes.  So how do you figure out how to join the song in progress, with some narration covering a little bit of it?  This is not Brendel playing Beethoven, this is a stockbroker and a couple of computer guys.  But we agonize over it.  Are we being fair to the music?

JS: There’s another quartet, and the tune that they sing in the semi-finals is sentimental, but it’s also moving.  So here’s the issue.  They really blow the opening, and then they get back in tune.  Do we comment on that, or do we let the audience figure it out?  We have them singing it a little bit in their dressing room, where they sound gorgeous.  It just breaks my heart that they weren’t better in the competition, because I love the song so much.  And I know how well they can sing it.

GS: Tell me about video production of symphonic music, about things that people not involved with it wouldn’t think of.  One thing you’ve mentioned to me is that you really need to get into a concert hall long before the performance you’re shooting.

PB: This is one of the reasons why it isn’t cheap to produce these programs.  You can’t just show up with the cameras, and feel the music.  The classic story is that you have a sports director doing music.  So someone says, “The flutes are coming, the flutes are coming!”  And the director says, “Somebody get the flutes - oh shit!”  Because he missed it.

GS: But you’re a musician, and you read music.  So here’s a layman’s question. You can circle the flutes in red in the score, so you know they’re coming.  Why do you need rehearsal?

PB: We rehearse with the cameras, because the camera operators don’t necessarily know where the flutes are.  We’re doing a show next month with the Houston Symphony, and it’s going to be in high definition, by the way, which adds more wrinkles.  We’ve shot in Houston before, but if we never had, we’d need to know what the hall looks like, where you can put the cameras. And we need to find out how the orchestra sets up.  Do they play on risers?  Will they play on risers if we ask them to?

GS: Why would you want them to play on risers?

PB:It creates a better television picture.  If they don’t play on risers, and you look at them from the front of the stage, you have nothing but a long thin row of people filling the space on the bottom on the screen.  We will also paint the floor in Houston. It will be sort of a medium gray, instead of the ugly black floor that they have.  The gray will allow us to have a little bit of color in the shot that wouldn’t be there otherwise, and it will also reflect light up to the players.  The players always say it’s more comfortable playing on this gray stage than the black one.

GS: Then why is the stage black at all?

PB: Because this is a multipurpose hall, and they do other stuff.

GS: Will you rehearse with the orchestra?

PB: What we’ll do in this case is shoot a Saturday night performance.  We treat that as a camera rehearsal.  Then they play the same program again on Sunday afternoon, and we will shoot that.  Then they play it again on Monday night, and we will shoot that, too.

JS: Monday will be a live show to theHouston market, but we will take both performances and make an edited version for PBS.  We will use the earlier one partly to fix audio mistakes and partly to fix video mistakes.  Usually we take the last performance as our basic performance, because by then the cameramen really know the show.  We’re usually at our best the last time we shoot it.  But everybody’s getting tired, too, so there may be a blown shot or two.

GS: You’ve worked with a well-known audio producer, John McClure, and he’s been quoted as saying that he sometimes raises the audio on instruments during close-ups.  Obviously that’s something you favor. 

PB:A TV mix is not quite the same as an audio recording mix.  But we’re not talking about gross changes of levels.

JS: It’s got to be subtle.  Really what John does is just to emphasize, and he often does nothing, because if we’ve chosen to shoot the flutes it’s because that’s what you hear anyway.   Though he does what we call a hot mix.  He’s constantly mixing.  He has his marked score, just as we have, and he is constantly moving the faders on his mixer to follow the music, because there’s no perfect acoustic.  There’s no hall where you’re going to hear everything you want to.  Besides, when you’re producing a record, you can have your microphones anywhere you want, but on TV, you can’t.

GS: But what wold be the problem of simply recording the sound in the hall in the most purist audio fashion, as if you were making one of those old Mercury Living Presence recordings?

PB:If you’re making a CD, that’s what you should do.  But I don’t think that what we do on a TV show is the same thing because it’s picture and sound together.

JS: TV is a close-up medium, so I think your ear needs more presence on individual instruments.

PB: But going back to the actual production, I’d say the piece we have shot more than any other is Rhapsody in Blue.  If we’re going to do it again, I can’t just take the way we shot it in Boston, let’s say, or simply use the same shooting script the same marked score that we used in Dallas or Miami.  It has a great deal to do with the temperament of the players, and where the cameras are.

JS: Well, for instance, in some shows we have a boom.

PB: In Houston we will be using a camera on what we call a jib arm. It’s like a microphone boom, a small camera out on the end of the arm.  The camera will be over stage right, by the first violins, and it allows us to get a lot of shots we couldn’t get otherwise, and some lovely moves.

JS: You can do more than pan and zoom. You can raise and float.

PB: There are some places we go where – at a classical subscription concert – they wouldn’t want that. Live From Lincoln Center, I think, would never use a jib and they have good reasons for it.  They try very, very hard to make a program that is televised look no different to the audience in the hall from a program that isn’t televised.  Also I’d say that there is an architectural problem.  We can use the jib, for example, in Music Hall in Cincinnati and the audience wouldn’t be bothered, because the hall is very wide.  The same is true in Houston.  But in a narrow hall, like Avery Fisher in New York, a jib would be more of a distraction.  And in some halls we would not use a jib simply because it would cast shadows all over the orchestra, because of lighting positions.

GS: So if I were to watch a lot of your Rhapsodies in Blue, would I see great similarities?

JS:We do have friends who recognize our work, or claim they so. [She laughs.]   But I take that as a compliment!

PB: We have shot Rhapsody in Blue with the Boston Pops, and we decided to have a whole lot of light cues, and we could get away with it. Because it was very much in the spirit of the Boston Pops.  We have shot Rhapsody in Blue with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony on their very small stage, where the cameras are much closer to the performers, and it had a much more intimate kind of look.  We did a Rhapsody in Blue again in Dallas, with Andrew Litton conducting.  I had a very long jib arm, and I was able to park the camera right over his head.  There was one great little moment when he finishes a line on the piano and then he raises his hand to cue someone in the orchestra, and his hand goes right in front of the lens.  That was really slick, and it was something that particular situation allowed us to do.

GS: How are you different from other people in your kind of work?

JS:There aren’t many people in our line of work!

PB: Let’s put it this way.  There are people who are doing it, who don’t do much of it.  And when they try it, they understand how difficult it is, and that’s why they don’t do much more of it.  I guess we’re fortunate that there aren’t a lot of people doing it!

JS: If you tune in on the Internet, you can hear the Live From Lincoln Center control room, and it doesn’t sound much different from our control room.

PB: I would say that I tend to like to work with more cameras on the stage than perhaps other people do, and not everyone likes that.  I feel that there’s very little point in putting a show on television that shows what you can see sitting in the hall.  I think one of the most compelling things is what’s happening on the stage.

JS: And the conductor’s face.

PB: And the relationships among individuals on the stage.  Having played a little in orchestras myself, I know it’s pretty exciting on there.