Heather MacDonald writes about the potential and the challenge of broadcasting classical music into movie theaters.

On January 9, the Los Angeles Philharmonic broadcast a live concert into 450 movie theaters in North America, becoming the first orchestra anywhere to do so. The main conclusion to draw from this venture, which will be followed by two more broadcasts this season, is that Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra’s 30-year-old Venezuelan conductor, really does deserve all the hype lavished on him. As a spokesman for classical music, Dudamel is, quite simply, adorable—unapologetically enthusiastic and seemingly unaffected by the media storm that has swirled around him since he climbed onto the Los Angeles podium two years ago. Yet the broadcast also unwittingly revealed the limitations of filmed orchestra concerts, which must be overcome if the full potential of this effort to spread Dudamel’s magic is to be realized.

Where to point the camera?

…management’s inexplicable stumble [came] in directing how the concert would be filmed. Once Dudamel left the cramped backstage area and walked to the podium, the camera suddenly forgot that he was the only reason that movie audiences had come to the theater that day. Rather than concentrating on Dudamel’s conducting, the camera focused overwhelmingly on close-ups of individual musicians. It darted dizzyingly from one face to another, punctuated by the occasional upward swoop to Disney Hall’s sculptural ceiling. But a close-up of a symphony musician conveys nothing essential about the music being performed. His facial expressions are inadvertent, the product of physical exertion in producing sound, rather than an intentional registering of emotion. Even when the particular musician has been selected because a melodic line is emanating from his section of the orchestra or he is performing a brief solo, the incessant close-ups impede a listener’s understanding of a piece rather than expand it.

The challenge of turning music into film is much greater for a symphony concert than for an opera, since the visual elements of an orchestra performance are muted and the deliberate theatrical elements missing entirely. Thus the temptation to create false visual drama by an obsessive attention to an oboist’s fingerings or the intricate design of a French horn. (Rock concerts are obviously much more theatrical and thus camera-friendly, as Stop Making Sense, the great Talking Heads movie directed by Jonathan Demme, demonstrates.) Yet there is inherent drama in a single individual’s standing alone before a large body of musicians and trying to realize his understanding of extraordinarily complex music.