Everyone is allowed an occasional lapse in taste, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra has just had its turn. It has been performing Smetana’s 90-minute symphonic cycle My Homeland in a darkened auditorium beneath a slick sequence of photographs. The official term is “photochoreography”, described by its American creator, James Westwater, as “the fusion of live symphonic music with multi-image projected photographic essays that are choreographed in ways that reflect the qualities and character of specifically selected classical compositions”. Reading further down Westwater’s blurb, we discover that photochoreography “connects today’s orchestras with today’s audiences”.
The assumption is that 21st-century concert-goers can’t concentrate long enough to engage with symphonic music on its own terms. It has to have an add-on visual element – which, in the RSNO’s Má vlast: A Visual Journey, hijacks the experience, with new images crossing the screen every five seconds. The music becomes a soundtrack: the “live” element is superfluous. Exactly how Peter Oundjian, the RSNO’s music director, thought this would intensify Smetana’s musical imagery is not clear – but he is sufficiently committed to promise that photochoreography will play a larger part in the orchestra’s activity when its new home opens next year alongside Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. And he will repeat Má vlast: A Visual Journey next month with his other orchestra, the Toronto Symphony.
This photo-portrait of the Czech homeland has nothing to do with Smetana or the Czech spirit – hardly surprising, given that Westwater had never been there before taking on the project. Apart from a couple of gratuitous references to the Nazi and Soviet occupations, his is a picture-postcard view, turning Bohemia’s woods and fields into a touristic theme park – neatly conserved town squares, church towers, cobbled streets, pretty landscapes and Lord of the Rings-style glades. It’s a view calculated to appeal to North American city dwellers with little sense of history and an idealised view of their European roots.
Oundjian and the orchestra whisked through the score with finesse but little feeling. What are the bets he has already lined up Strauss’s Alpine Symphony and Chabrier’s España for similar treatment?