Paris Pelleas Project

By Alan Gilbert

For many years I have been speaking about the idea of introducing a visual element to the auditory core of a concert with Doug Fitch, my friend and frequent collaborator. It’s a tricky matter as it is far from evident how to do so in a way that enhances the experience – by reflecting a true spiritual link between the music and images – and at the same time does not diminish the impact of the music itself.
When I ponder this there are several random points that come to mind, which have informed Doug’s and my musings on the subject: 

  • You can’t say that concerts are not already inherently visual: an important part of the experience is observing the ritual of the concert experience itself, from the musicians taking the stage in tails and gowns and tuning, then the concert itself, with the movement of bows and the raising of mallets, including the impressions of the audience around you and the conductor on the podium.
  • Opera is of course visual, and this is true, albeit less so, even when it is performed “in concert.”
  • Some composers purport to think in color: it isn’t just a case of Scriabin’s synesthesia, but the kind of “tone palette” used most obviously by Debussy and the impressionists.
  • Concerts on television present a real challenge: the director’s choices as when to close up and on whom can affect the viewer’s auditory experience as they guide which lines stand out, and add weight and focus in a way usually attributed to the conductor. This means that the listener/viewer is given less choice about what stimuli to respond to. In the concert hall, for example, one might be fascinated by how sensitively a violist is accompanying a famous oboe solo, and decide to concentrate on that level of the music. Seeing a close-up of the oboist’s reed, perhaps with a bead of sweat poised to drip off her nose, would, in this case, be a distraction.
  • Having consciously decided to add an additional visual element, it has to be done with taste and insight – with a real respect for the music itself.

Last Saturday Doug and I were able to act on our theories when I conducted Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in a performance in which Doug’s images were projected. In fact, it was a series of concerts, because the piece was being done not only in a concert for adults, but also in two youth concerts.
We felt that this was an ideal work for us to implement our theories. The piece, although inspired by Maeterlinck’s drama, does not follow a linear narrative. The music captures the emotional spirit – feelings, locations, characters – but it doesn’t follow the story point by point in a literal way. The Rite of Spring would have been a wrong choice because, as a ballet, it was created to convey a storyline with a specific series of visual events. Yes, in the Schoenberg there are moments when clear visual images are suggested, such as the one in which Golaud murders Pelleas, but overall his Pelleas lives in the indefinable areas of psychological exploration and emotional impact.
Similarly, in last weekend’s presentation Doug’s images suggested the story without relating it, in a way that was stylish and musically sophisticated – a mis en lumière. For the most part he used black and white images, which seemed inspired by Japanese painting and brushwork, with only the occasional use of color, and the images were projected on a layered series of screens to create a sense of three dimensions. And while the stage lights were down, so people could see the projections of light that conveyed Doug’s visuals, I as the conductor had to be seen by the players, so I was brightly lit, which had the side effect of letting the audience know that the music was still of primary importance. (You can see it online:
People seemed to like it – afterwards, they spoke of the beauty and commitment of the orchestra’s playing, the elegance and suggestive power of Doug’s images, and, perhaps most importantly for me, the fact that they were able to switch their attention seamlessly back and forth between the elements. This had been the elusive goal we were hoping to achieve in this experimental coupling of aural and visual media. And it wasn’t just the adults at the “normal” concert who appreciated it: the children (roughly aged 9-13) clearly “got it,” even though at first blush Maeterlinck’s story of illicit love, betrayal, and murder would not seem a natural subject for a kids’ concert. When you add to it the fact that this serious, intense 45-minute score is by Schoenberg, the project could seem absurd. But the young audience listened with incredible focus. We did have some explanation and illustrations, including commentary I gave, and perhaps that helped, but the fact is that we didn’t sugarcoat anything, and once the performance began the kids listened with an impressive degree of concentration, and responded warmly when it was over. I found this inspiring, and am eager to try similar projects in New York – for audiences of all ages.

(For more information on Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, visit

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