Examining Chicago’s Beyond The Score Program

Now in its fourth year, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) Beyond The Score programs continue to draw large audiences and positive reviews. The brainchild of Gerard McBurney, CSO Artistic Programming Advisor, the series of concerts features a presentation format that draws on live musical examples to illustrate the structure of each composition in the first half of the concert and after intermission, the orchestra performs the piece in its entirety. I attended the September 28, 2008 performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and wanted to share some observations about the program…

In the spirit of full disclosure, the CSO provided a complimentary ticket in one of the better sections of the house. Nevertheless, I observed that the house was at least 90 percent full and there were at least two large groups (20+) of high school aged students in attendance. Likewise, the audience seemed to be comprised of a wide variety of demographics but was still favored the baby-boomer side.

The concert unfolded without any surprises and exactly the way it is billed; the first half consisted of a lecture style presentation and the second half was a full performance. In addition to the orchestra, the first half featured McBurney, actor Nicholas Rudall (providing voice-over services), and pianist Ian Hobson who performed musical examples referenced throughout the presentation. In order to capture my initial impressions about the first half of the performance while they were fresh in my memory, I brought along my laptop. Here’s what I wrote during intermission:

  • It is a spectacular accomplishment, the presentation made the music relevant and meaningful.
  • It was especially meaningful to cover the work from its initial inspiration through the orchestration.
  • I wanted to burn the video screen; it made the CSO’s already muddy hall worse by stifling the brass situated behind the screen.
  • I’m not sure why the voice actor was necessary; beyond a few comedic points where he delivered lines from letters written by Ravel and Mussorgsky, he was a distraction and McBurney was doing a fabulous job on his own.
  • Mixed impressions about the visual production. On one hand they did an astounding job at tying in audible elements with choreographed visual effects but after the first 30 minutes or so, it was clear they only had one cinematic idea. Some variation would have been more stimulating. Overall, it felt like one of the higher quality History Channel productions albeit not as diverse.
  • The intermission completely eliminated the momentum established by the opening commentary. The mojo created by McBurney’s fabulous script felt entirely lost by the time the orchestra started the second half.
  • Since the video component included live video of players onstage, it seemed as though they could have used that tool more throughout the visual presentation; perhaps picture in picture?

In hindsight, I can say that any orchestra interested in licensing a Beyond The Score program needs to consider how they will use a video screen and if it has too negative of an impact on sound quality. More than a month after the performance, I’m still bothered by how much the video screen degraded the orchestra’s sound.

Another area that has room for improvement is moving to an intermission-free format. The script had enough opportunity for tightening and Pictures is a short enough piece that they could have gone right into a full performance after the presentation.

Although I initially found the video presentation to be a bit repetitive, that shouldn’t dissuade anyone interested in purchasing this program; all in all, it is a minor observation. If cost is an issue, I do think the addition of the voice actor isn’t necessary and negotiations with the CSO on this point might result in some willingness to make minor edits.


About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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