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Symphony Magazine    

September/October 1997


Best Seat in the House


Backstage as PBS turns its cameras on the concert hall


By Mary Ellyn Hutton


      Phillip Byrd is a conductor.  He doesn’t wear tails, or wave a baton, or even stand in front of an orchestra.

      But he knows the score, gives cues, and is as involved in his own way in the concert performances as the man or woman on the podium,

      Byrd produces performance television.  His vantage point is the TV control room, where he produces and directs concerts by the nation’s finest orchestras – but not just those heard on Live from Lincoln Center or Great Performances.  As producer and director of PBS’s Regional Arts Initiative, he has been turning his cameras inland.

      In March 1997, Byrd’s command center is a video truck parked behind Music Hall in Cincinnati.  A crew of 32, including nine cameramen and women, four jib operators, audio producer John McClure, lighting designer Bill Greenfield, and a production team from local PBS affiliate WCET-TV are on site to tape a concert by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Music Director Jesus Lopez-Cobos, and pianist Alicia de Larrocha.

     As 8 o’clock nears, last-minute glitches are being worked out.  The jib operator for Camera Five reports no sound in his headphones. Crew and guests are still trickling into the video truck, including Karen McKim, executive director of Cincinnati’s Corbett Foundation, which is underwriting half the cost of the $300,000 show.

      Bottles of Evian are cracked open.  Like horses at the starting gate, the control crew sits poised for the downbeat.  After opening remarks by WCET President/General Manager Wayne Godwin and patroness Patricia Corbett, Lopez-Cobos leads into the “Prelude a la nuit” of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, the first work on a program rounded out by the Ravel Piano Concerto and Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony.

     The Cincinnati taping is the fourth in PBS’s Regional Arts Initiative series, following a July, 1996, program featuring the Dallas Symphony with Music Director Andrew Litton and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg; the inaugural concert of Music Director Hans Vonk with the Saint Louis Symphony in September, 1996; and Atlanta’s 70th annual Morehouse-Spelman Christmas Carol concert, broadcast during the holidays last year and scheduled again for December 15, 1997.

      Although not exclusively an orchestral series, the Regional Arts Initiative has focused largely on symphony orchestras so far, says Byrd.  The producers aim “to do programs from communities around the country that involve local public TV stations and what we call their flagship arts organizations. In most cases, this is the symphony orchestra, but as it moves forward in future seasons, it may expand a little bit.”

     PBS officials designed the initiative to introduce national public television audiences to important performing arts organizations they have not seen recently or frequently on national TV.  They also hope to increase the number of public television stations that produce for national prime-time TV, and help create ongoing relationships between public TV stations and their local arts organizations.

     “The goal is to tap into the great talent that is out there beyond Lincoln and Kennedy Centers,” says John Wilson, vice president for programming at PBS.

      Inclusion in the telecasts “is very gratifying recognition of the level of our orchestra’s artistry and the national stature of the CSO,” says Steven Monder, the orchestra’s executive director.

     Videotaping live performance is a delicate assignment.  It must be done with the least possible distraction – few people at theCincinnati concerts could spot the three onstage cameramen, who, disguised in tails, crept among the stands, shooting bells, bow and embouchures.  Above all, the musicians must be able to work unimpeded.

      Byrd, who produces and directs Cincinnati Pops shows at Music Hall, was given more leeway in taping the CSO than he usually enjoys with symphony orchestras. As with the Pops, he used a camera mounted on a crane – “jib” in TV-speak – that swung out over the stage.  Another jib was stationed in the topmost balcony, well positioned for foreground shots of the hall’s Czechoslovakian crystal chandelier.

     “You’ll see views of the orchestra that you’ll never see on a Live from Lincoln Center show,” Byrd says.

     In Cincinnati, the hall itself is a photo op.  Built in 1878 for Theodore Thomas and the Cincinnati May Festival, Music Hall is a Victorian gothic landmark with Italian and Romanesque features.  Its white-walled interior is dominated by the huge, two-ton chandelier and a double proscenium arch with elaborate gilt carvings.  Oversized at 3417 seats, it was nearly full for both concerts, yet there was plenty of room for the cameras and equipment.  The jib on the floor got around easily, browsing the orchestra like a grazing dinosaur.


DRESSING UP FOR TV.   As the concert proceeds on Saturday night, Byrd sits back in his truck before a bank of TV monitors.  There are two sets of screens for the cameras in Music Hall, nine screens in color and nine in black and white, each with the name and number of a camera operator on it.  A large color screen records what is being taped as it happens.  A screen next to it previews the shots coming up.  Three screen monitor backup shots (“iso’s”) for possible splicing when the show is edited.

      Byrd jumps to his feet frequently, snapping his fingers at the main screen and tossing cues to the camera crew thought his headset.  “Take 6 (snap).  Take 8 (snap).  Dissolve!” (as one screen fades to another). Sometimes he sounds like a cheerleader. “Go five.  Take now. 

      A former first trombonist in the U.S. Army Band with degrees in mass communications from the University of Denver, Byrd orchestrates his shows in advance, making red and green notations onto a large copy of the score.  His aim is to capture for the eye what is heard by the ear: In the Ravel Piano concerto, for instances, there is an extra long dissolve between English hornist William Harrod and Alicia de Larrocha during their second-movement duet.

      Each camera operator works from an individual “shot list” of such moments keyed to the master score.  Byrd fine-tunes his calls as the concert proceeds: “Tight on the fingers” (bassoonist William Winstead in Rapsodie espagnole).  “Watch those mutes” (going into the trumpets).  “That’s the wrong clarinet.”

     Byrd’s wife and business partner Janet Shapiro usually tends the score during the taping sessions, but for this project it is CSO assistant conductor John Morris Russell.  Deceptively calm (“the eye of the hurricane,”) he says), Russell sits next to Byrd in the truck, tracking each bar with a pencil and sliding the pages of the score, which has been cut up to facilitate page turning, on top of each other.  Occasionally, he dips his fingers in wax.

      In a separate room in the truck, audio master McClure monitors the sound to make sure it accurately reflects what is being taped.  “I want to make sure what people see is what gets heard.  If the director picks a bad shot, I have a problem, but fortunately Phil doesn’t do that.”  McClure, producer of definitive recordings with Leonard Bernstein, Bruno Walter, and Igor Stravinsky, can isolate any instrumental group he wants.  “They don’t need any help,” he says, as the cellos soar in the finale of the Dvorak.

      Electrical director Greenfield, veteran of CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show and now a freelancer, also worked on the Cincinnati Pops shows.  “The problem with symphony orchestras is, do you accept what the appearance is to the concert goers, or do you take it a step further and dress it for television?”  For the CSO, the producers “wanted to keep it tasteful, while giving it a bit of an upbeat nature,” he says.  Like Byrd, he was allowed to do more with the CSO than he has with other orchestras, such as lighting the players from the sides as well as the front, and projecting muted colors against the orchestra shell.  Ivory spots played on the crystal chandelier. A halo flickered off the top where it picked up gold tones from the ceiling.

      The Regional Arts Initiative has targeted several orchestras as possible subjects of future programs, says PBS’s Wilson, including Houston, Philadelphia, and Miami Beach’s New World Symphony.  A concert by James DePreist and the Oregon Symphony with percussionist Evelyn Glennie will be taped in January, 1998.

      “We’re charged with finding opportunities where the programming is interesting, the performance is at a very high level, where the public TV station in the community can be a major player, where the venue is one where you could make a good-looking TV program, and where there is a good likelihood of finding some financial support for it in the community,” says Byrd.  PBS funds half the cost of production.  The other half is up to the local community.

     There are 349 public television stations in the U.S., covering 99 percent of American households and watched by more than 96 million people each week.  The arts initiative programs have been carried widely, Wilson says.  “The program is delivered nationally, easily 75 percent of PBS stations carry it as fed.  With the next week, the vast majority of households are covered by it.”

     Says Byrd: “When I visit my parents, who live in Arkansas, and I look at the Arkansas ETV listings, every one of these programs is carried.  Talk to the programmer for, say Nebraska ETV, and he says ‘Of course I carry these programs.  How else is someone in North Platte going to be exposed to a great symphony orchestra.”