"Wizard of Oz" is orchestra's lastest programming venture

by ekramer on November 16, 2007

The Louisville Orchestra began 2006 on the brink of bankruptcy and finished the year having brought back music director Jorge Mester and overhauled its administrative staff. This year, it has worked to reach new audiences with untraditional programming, like this weekend’s performance of “Wizard of Oz.” WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer dropped in on some its rehearsals to bring you this story.

While the wind is whipping outside the Palace Theater Friday morning, the Louisville Orchestra’s new associate conductor — Jason Weinberger — is working with the musicians who fill the stage, in the first rehearsal for “The Wizard of Oz.”
“In four at the beginning of this…” he tells the musicians.

In front of his podium are two monitors, side by side. The left monitor shows a large clock, which Weinberger uses to keep time of the score. On the right, is the movie, in all its Technicolor. Beyond his command center is the full orchestra, including two harps and two pianos.

This production is what the Louisville Orchestra is calling a Wow Event. It began staging these events, special one-off performances, earlier this year with music from “The Lord of the Rings.” This summer it followed up with “Video Games Live,” a performance of game scores accompanied by video projections.

This weekend’s performance of the 1939 classic is another way the organization wants to reach people who haven’t been to the orchestra before and who might go to more performances in the future.

While orchestras throughout the country, and even the world, are venturing into this kind of programming, naysayers complain that it overshadows and undermines classical repertoire. Weinberger disagrees with them.

“I personally think that this is very complementary,” he says. “I know that there are folks on both sides of that question. I believe that this is a fantastic score.”

The score is akin to the classical repertoire because when Harold Arlen composed the music, Hollywood was filled with classical musicians and composers who had come there from across Europe. They included Bernard Hermann, who composed the music to “Psycho,” and Erich Korngold, who created the music for “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn. Film composers of the time drew inspiration from the orchestral repertoire.

John Goberman, who created public television’s “Live from Lincoln Center” in 1976, is a fan of the music from this era. He first staged “The Wizard of Oz” with the National Symphony Orchestra several years ago and has since taken it to cities throughout the country and to the United Kingdom, Australia and Korea.

“This is a way of hearing symphonic music in an engaging way that you wouldn’t be able to hear it otherwise,” Goberman says.

Those working in classical music these days recognize that most people have trouble merely listening to music in our visually saturated culture. Weinberger is one of them. He thinks the visuals in the “Wizard of Oz” can help people become more aware of the power of listening.

“What I find interesting is in talking to students, you know, for the most part, their sense of hearing is a harder thing for them to tap into,” Weinberger says. “I guess I should say their sense of listening is a harder thing to tap into than what they see. And I think that’s true generally across the population these days.”

The orchestra can’t measure its success in teaching people the power of listening, but it has been measuring the success of these Wow Events by audience size.

Brad Broeker, the orchestra’s CEO, says the one performance of Video Games Live filled about 90 percent of the 2,400 seats in Whitney Hall. He predicts that the two performances of “The Wizard of Oz” will fill half of Palace, which seats 2,700.

Listen to the story.

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