NewsDec 21, 09:27 AM
By Marc Shulgold, Rocky Mountain News
December 18, 2004
Recorded music has benefited from the digital revolution, with lifelike reproduction possible in a variety of formats. That’s not always a good thing, because professional musicians find themselves competing for work with a device known as Sinfonia.
The introduction of this “virtual orchestra” into opera and Broadway pits has stirred resentment, lawsuits and countersuits. Even the definition of what it is has generated heated debate. Operated by a player who can control tempos and dynamics as a performance unfolds, Sinfonia is equipped with both musical and computer keyboards, samplers, state-of-the-art computers, monitor screens – oh yes, and a place to rest an old-fashioned music score. It produces sounds amazingly similar to orchestral voices.
But is it an instrument or merely a fancy mechanical substitute? Musicians who claim to be put out of work by the thing sneeringly call it a machine. That reaction is upsetting to Sinfonia’s inventors, Realtime Music Solutions (RMS). Jeff Lazarus, CEO of the New York-based company, insists it’s a musical instrument. “You could say that a flute is a machine, because it is a device that must be operated by a person in order to do its job,” he reasoned. “But we call flutes – and violins and trombones – musical instruments. It’s the same with Sinfonia.”
Realtime created it in 1999, along with a smaller device called OrchExtra – and in so doing, created a windstorm of controversy. “The reality is, they’re displacing musicians,” said Pete Vriesenga, president of the Denver Musicians Association. Lazarus counters that Sinfonia is “an enhancement for a pit orchestra,” noting that the instrument is operated in real time and in conjunction with a gathering of musicians, led by a conductor.
“We’ve never claimed that this is the same, as good as or better than an orchestra,” he said, responding to resentment to its use by the Opera Company of Brooklyn. “Humans are capable of making an infinite variety of sounds. We’re always trying to make Sinfonia better, but we can never replace a live orchestra.”
Budgetary concerns prompted Opera Company of Brooklyn to announce that it would use Sinfonia this season, following its success in The Magic Flute last year. That decision drew the ire of the New York musicians union and caused the resignation of OCB board members (and opera stars) Deborah Voigt and Marilyn Horne. A statement by the opera’s artistic director, Jay Meetze, defended the use of Sinfonia: “With only a limited budget, our goal is to use this sophisticated instrument to help build a new audience for opera.”
No surprise, Lazarus agreed with that decision, noting that the small, year-old opera company was “faced with presenting its operas either with a solo piano or scrapping them all together. “This year, they did Marriage of Figaro, using 10 players and (Sinfonia). The singers thought it was cool.”
Clearly, some musicians didn’t – Local 802 in New York declared “war” on Sinfonia and its manufacturer. Realtime Music Solutions countered by filing an unfair labor practices charge against the union.
All this rancor saddens Lazarus, who noted that six touring Broadway shows employ Sinfonia, while another 20 systems are in use around the country. “What we’re doing is perfectly legitimate. I honestly don’t understand the union reaction, their hostility. “The union is fine with prerecorded audio and click tracks (adding taped music to a live performance). I mean, who have we put out of work? Pit numbers (in New York) haven’t changed. In fact, lots of shows are exceeding the minimum number of players. I feel that it shouldn’t be an us-vs.-them thing.”
But the battle rages on, spreading last summer to England, where London union musicians approved the use of Sinfonia in Cameron Mackintosh’s touring production of Miss Saigon. Even then, tempers flared, with some claiming voting fraud. For Lazarus and his partners at Realtime, the anger surrounding Sinfonia is misplaced. “This is a new option that’s additive. I think union people are looking at this as an extreme situation.”
“While Sinfonia has been used as an enhancement, it has always reduced the number of players,” Vriesenga countered. “We have a problem with that.” While artistic considerations are part of the issue here, the true bottom line is cost. Since road shows are expensive, music budgets can be trimmed by alternatives such as taped soundtracks (the current Radio City Christmas Spectacular at the Buell Theatre, for example), click-track, pianos or electronic keyboards, a reduced band or a combination of live players and Sinfonia. The touring production of Oklahoma!, which visited Denver last year, used Sinfonia.
Sinfonia can only be leased – it can’t be purchased. The price ranges from $350 a week for a small, high-school-level show, to as much as $2,500 a week for a multiweek professional production. That’s far less than the cost of hiring a 15- to 20-piece union orchestra, which runs $141 per player per show, according to Vriesenga. But, he added, price can be misconstrued. “I hear it all the time: Theater people blame (high expenses on) the cost of musicians,” he said. “That’s the real lie. That was never a valid argument.”
Vriesenga, as an example, pointed to Colorado Ballet’s orchestral appropriation of 5 percent of its budget each season (approximately $300,000). Yet budget concerns limit live accompaniment to two of the ballet company’s four productions. A few seasons ago, such belt-tightening led to talk of eliminating all live accompaniment in favor of taped music – resulting in an angry reaction from Vriesenga and the local union.
The war of words over digital notes is not likely to end anytime soon. As Vriesenga admitted, “You can’t say ‘no’ to technology.” What’s more, that technology will only improve in the coming years. What remains, Vriesenga said, is a central question: “Does it result in better art or not?” But that’s another argument.
Marc Shulgold is the music and dance writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Shulgoldm@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-5296
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