By Brian Williams, Anchor and managing editor
At some point last Friday afternoon, Tom Brokaw came up to me in the newsroom and said, "Will I see you tonight?" I immediately knew what he meant. The annual NASCAR banquet -- a spectacular yearly celebration of the sport, a night of racing immersion, hard partying and debauchery -- was held Friday night at the Waldorf in New York. As a big fan of the sport and an admirer of the drivers, I usually attend. Not this year. Friday night, my wife and I had long-standing plans (which were made before we knew the exact date of the NASCAR banquet) to do something that was a first for us: attend the New York Philharmonic. Tom had a speaking role in the banquet: he was paying tribute to the NASCAR legends we had lost over the past year -- names like Bobby Hamilton, Benny Parsons, and the NASCAR patriarch of the modern era, Bill France, Jr. From what I've read on the NASCAR blogs, Tom did a spectacular job (one prominent racing blogger wonders why Tom can't be named permanent host of the event -- I'll gladly add my support to that nomination). During his remarks he happened to tell the crowd where I was, and why I wasn't with them at the banquet. I'm now going to catch flak for this for years. I will retaliate.
Back to the Philharmonic, and a bit of full disclosure: Of the 2,012 songs on my iPod, I own not one piece of classical music. Friday evening was an attempt by both of us to get some culture. The way my wife and I figured it, we'd been to three Springsteen concerts so far on his latest tour with the E Street Band, so we could surely afford to devote two hours toward a more high-minded pursuit. The Philharmonic concert was also billed as a spectacular event -- the New York debut of a young man the New York Times has called "the most talked-about conductor in classical music right now," a 26-year-old Venezuelan conductor named Gustavo Dudamel.
The pre-concert publicity was enormous. Full disclosure, again: I hadn't heard of this guy before I started reading up on the concert the night before. I normally would have discarded the Friday New York Times section that featured a huge color photo layout of him conducting -- the entire upper half of the Arts section above the fold.
Photos by Richard Perry, The New York Times
Like so many people who are the very best at what they do, Dudamel is fulfilling a childhood fantasy. He has told more than one interviewer that he used to "conduct" the toys in his room as a child. On Friday night, he borrowed the baton of the legendary Leonard Bernstein from its display case -- the equivalent of the sword of Zorro to any conductor at the Philharmonic -- and it seemed to work its magic in his gifted hands. He was electrifying. In physical appearance, he looks like the love child of Harpo Marx and Fran Leibowitz. Fred Armisen must be cast to play him in the inevitable biopic. He's diminutive but powerfully built, with great physicality and curly black flowing locks. All of the photos of him, including the photo accompanying the glowing review in Saturday's Times, feature his explosive facial expressions. Which brings me, finally, to my reason for this posting.
Perhaps you remember or have heard of the legendary Young People's Concerts conducted by Leonard Bernstein and televised in the 1950's 60's. The reason I found those broadcasts so interesting as a kid was Bernstein himself. He seemed to feel the music -- it seemed to come directly from him. He wore it on his face, on the veins in his neck and forehead. He had a great shock of hair and seemed to use the baton as a weapon at times. At others, it seemed to be a knitting needle, drawing together different elements of the orchestra. That was the last time I had any exposure to classical music, and Bernstein was the perfect vehicle for teaching a clueless kid from the Jersey Shore who was raised on much different music.
I wanted so badly to see Dudamel's face Friday night, as I had seen Bernstein's so many years before. Instead, for the better part of two hours, I watched the back of his tux and his boisterous hair. The couple we went with, both of them enthusiastic and fully informed experts on classical music, were enthralled by the show. We talked about changes in the music and to the concert form itself over the years. On the way home, during our discussion of the moving and powerful event we had just witnessed together, I couldn't help but think about the next change that should take place.
The paying audience at a New York Philharmonic concert should have the same ability as those who pay to see the Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Springsteen or U2. At all of those events, the audience can SEE the performers, thanks to the existing technology of the television camera and the giant video screen.
While we could certainly watch the extraordinary musicians performing on stage Friday night, it seemed downright criminal not to be able to see what THEY could see -- the dynamic, emotional and expressive face of this young dynamo wielding the baton. We went on Friday night to HEAR a concert, yes, but also to SEE it. To sense the emotion of the conductor only from still photos -- to be able to watch only his back -- felt vaguely incomplete and needlessly old-fashioned, a relic of the pre-electronic age. We now have the tools to greatly enhance the concert-going experience.
I'm guessing that arrival of the electronic age in the confines of Avery Fisher Hall -- the New York Philharmonic's home at Lincoln Center -- might not be greeted warmly by all. One glance across the audience at intermission quickly revealed the purists -- those who have supported the Philharmonic since its inception, driven by their love of music and of the institution itself. It may be that many of them would fiercely protest the "intrusion" of television in that sanctuary, in the form of a few flat screen monitors mounted facing the audience. Admittedly, by training and temperament, I'm a visual person. In the audience on Friday, I saw several people who were there solely for the auditory experience -- many with heads bowed, eyes closed, only listening and not even looking at the stage. They could (and likely would) do the same in a chamber with television monitors present.
A word about how such a thing could work: the cameras would be unobtrusive to the point of being invisible to the audience -- three to four of them, small and discreet, operated remotely offstage. One central flat-screen television monitor above the stage would display the output of a camera trained only on the conductor, head-on, at all times, while flanking monitors on both sides could display a "switched feed" of the orchestra -- as they are televised by PBS -- showing the various musicians as the score features their particular section.
Allow me a prediction: midway through the first movement of the first such "televised" concert, even the skeptics will find their eyes drawn unavoidably to the screen. Watch the way sports fans or concert-goers watch a live event: they use the big screen to enhance the live experience -- to catch facial expressions, nuance, a particular detail or individual achievement -- to see what they can't see from their seats. What we witnessed on Friday night was nothing short of transforming. Why should Philharmonic concert-goers be among the few remaining paying customers in the entertainment industry not entitled to an even better view and feel of the performance? My first appreciation for classical music came from being able to see the great, expressive face of a great conductor, Leonard Bernstein. The only way to attract a younger generation to the seats in Avery Fisher Hall just might be to offer them what they have everywhere else: a way to see what's going on.
Meantime, back at the Waldorf, Tom was the toast of the party (while he was at the podium, his remarks were broadcast to the room on big-screen television) and this year's top-finishing race teams enjoyed a great evening. Having enjoyed my dose of culture, (and by all accounts having seen a truly memorable, historic night of symphony music) I'll be back in the audience at next year's NASCAR banquet -- if they'll have me.
Back to the broadcast: we have the weather in the Pacific Northwest covered; we are currently watching the White House briefing on the Iran intelligence development; we'll have politics in Iowa, Venezuela and Russia; and our promoted story on the economy: as Winnebago goes, so goes the nation. We hope you had a great weekend, and we hope you can join us for our Monday night broadcast.