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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Musicians Forced Into Fakery - New York Times

Musicians Forced Into Fakery - New York TimesJuly 2, 2005
Musicians Forced Into Fakery

It was supposed to be a breakout moment in the history of the New York Pops and its music director, Skitch Henderson. On Monday night, on seven barges along the East River, Macy's will present what it is calling the largest Fourth of July fireworks display in America. It will be precisely coordinated to a soundtrack performed by the New York Pops, a 30-minute medley of American music. And the whole show will be televised nationwide on NBC.

This is just the kind of exposure the New York Pops, which Mr. Henderson founded in 1983, has longed for. Over the years, with outdoor concerts from the Charles River Esplanade, the hugely successful Boston Pops has been America's orchestra of note for Fourth of July festivities. (CBS will carry its concert live at 10 p.m. on Monday.)

But officials at the New York Pops may now be thinking, "Be careful what you wish for." Viewers who look closely at the NBC broadcast on Monday night at 9 may notice something strange. If the musicians of the New York Pops look a little sheepish and seem less than fully engaged, it's because they will be shown doing the instrumental equivalent of lip-synching. Officials from the orchestra call it "synchronizing."

The musicians recorded the soundtrack in a studio last week. The video images of the orchestra pretending to perform were taped during a free concert - or what was supposed to be a free concert - that the Pops presented on Wednesday night at Bryant Park. For some 45 minutes, the audience in the park watched an NBC camera crew film the fake performance as the recorded soundtrack was played over loudspeakers, a process that necessitated stopping and starting many times.

The audience had been expecting to hear a live concert. Given the distractions of the videotaping as well as the rainy weather, the intrepid music lovers who showed up were remarkably tolerant.

Although weather reports had predicted thunderstorms, by concert time the precipitation had slackened to showers. The orchestra was under multiple pressures to go ahead with the performance.

Besides being a free concert for the public, the event was a benefit for the Pops. About 175 people had purchased boxed dinners at $250 each, and almost half of them showed up, determined to enjoy themselves despite having to slice their chicken with one hand while holding an umbrella with the other. In good weather the free concerts by the New York Pops in Bryant Park can attract up to 10,000 people. Here there were a few hundred, at best. No one was allowed to sit on the lawn, which was soggy with rain. Still, determined patrons, wearing all manner of rain gear, sat in folding chairs that encircled the Bryant Park green.

The other pressure came from the need to videotape the fake performance for NBC. When the Pops agreed to provide the soundtrack for the fireworks display, its managers did not realize that the musicians would not be shown giving an actual performance, James M. Johnson, the orchestra's executive director, said during a break in the concert. But having signed on to the project, the orchestra complied with the producers' insistence that the fireworks display be matched to a recorded soundtrack.

In the original plans, the synchronized performance was to be videotaped on Wednesday afternoon, so that in the evening the orchestra could simply perform the medley for the audience. But because of heavy afternoon showers, the television crew had to use concert time for the taping.

The program, part of the Summermusic series, began well enough, given the rain and humidity. Mr. Henderson, still a lively presence on the podium at 87, led accounts of Glière's "Russian Sailor's Dance" and works by Jerónimo Giméniz and Debussy, followed by selections from Handel's "Water Music," which seemed all too appropriate. The audience was palpably appreciative.

The orchestra used an Electro-Voice amplification system, which certainly gave the music resonance: the decaying sound of fortissimo final chords lingered for four seconds by my watch. The acoustics may not be natural, but you could not complain that the Pops was hard to hear.

Then came time for the taping. Midge Woolsey of WQXR, the host for the evening, explained what was about to happen and admitted that the orchestra would be going through the motions of playing as we listened to the recorded soundtrack. She warned that the players would have to stop and restart often. But she urged everyone to get involved, to shout and cheer at the end of each piece and show its enthusiasm for the benefit of the cameras.

Such is the allure of television in the age of reality shows that most people stuck around and willingly played their parts. Sometimes it was hard to fathom exactly what was going on. Fathers bounced their children on their knees to the rhythms of a George M. Cohan tune or John Williams's "Olympic Fanfare," and you wondered whether they were really enjoying themselves or mugging for the cameras, or whether they could not really tell the difference between the live selections and the faked ones, since both were amplified.

During the beloved standard "Over the Rainbow," the orchestra's concertmaster, Erica Kiesewetter, played a prominent violin solo. Not live, of course; she was just pretending. This is not the kind of turn you can imagine your career path taking when you are a young, idealistic violin student.

The medley ended with "God Bless America," with the orchestra joined by the New York Pops Festival Chorus - which had also recorded its parts.

Once the videotaping was completed, the Pops gave the patient audience a well-deserved reward, performing a medley from "West Side Story." By this point the rain had stopped. Even hearing the selections through loudspeakers, the audience, not to mention the players, seemed relieved to be experiencing music performed live.

Asked afterward whether the New York Pops would again agree to record a soundtrack for a Fourth of July fireworks display if it involved faking a performance for television, Mr. Johnson said, "Ask me again in two weeks."

1 comment:

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