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Laurie Niles

January 24, 2005 at 7:39 AM

Who cares if somebody wants to use a “virtual orchestra” for their musical theatre production of “Oklahoma”?

Well, we all should care.

That's why I said, “Yes,” when violinist Mark Casillas asked if I could pass out flyers at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, where “Oklahoma” is running through next Sunday. He was asking on behalf of the LA musicians union , of which I am a member.

This production not only used non-union actors (a major cause for grievance in this town that is teeming with professional actors) but it also made use of a computerized device called a virtual orchestra machine. Though “Oklahoma” is scored for an orchestra of 18, this production used 8 musicians, plus the machine, which is controlled by a non-musician operator.

The Pantages sits in the strangely seedy but upscale heart of Hollywood. Though I have lived in LA for five years, I have not spent a lot of time here. On my way down Hollywood Blvd. I passed The Erotic Museum, next to Starbuck's, many souvenir shops, and every kind of human imaginable, in all shapes, sizes, colors and manner of dress.

I parked about a block away, still not sure whether I was walking through a dangerous neighborhood or not. It was a great night: warm weather, the sky in the pink afterglow of sunset, a full moon. I looked at the buildings towering around the theatre. The Capitol Records building caught my eye. It was evidently made to look like a stack of records, though me it just looked like something from the old cartoon, The Jetsons.

I found Casillas standing next to a box of white flyers, next to the Pantages marquis. With him was violinist Jim Sitterly . Soon after came two other violinists, Araksia Nazlikian and Olga Babtchimskaia.

Casillas gave us the lowdown on proper behavior:

1.Say, “Good evening, are you going to 'Oklahoma'?” That will catch their attention.
2.Don't ask if they want a flyer, nobody wants a flyer. Hand it to them and say, “This is about the music you'll be hearing tonight.” This is a non-confrontational way of saying it.
3.Be nice to these people. They are going to a musical. We want that! Conclude by saying, “Enjoy the show!”

Casillas demonstrated his spiel for us, and it worked like a charm. He had clearly thought carefully through what to say and exactly how to say it. Even some rather skeptical patrons were charmed by Casillas' geniality and non-confrontational nature and thanked him for giving them this “information about the music.”

I had dressed in semi-business attire for doing this. I wanted to look professional and intelligent, since appearance is about all people take in during the three seconds you try to hand them a flyer.

Araksia and I went to the west side of the marquis while the other three took the east side. We took our post right over the famous Walk of Fame

We spent an hour passing out several hundred flyers, which explained the virtual orchestra and gave a phone number for patrons to call and express any dissatisfaction they may have with the half-live, half-virtual orchestra. Most people were interested, and they took the flyers. Some were already aware of the situation and expressed disappointment in the increasing numbers of productions done this way.

One man said, “Some of those machines, they sound just about like the real thing, it's scary.”

Perhaps to some, but the LA Times critic Daryl H. Miller seemed to hear a pronounced difference. In his review on Jan. 20 he wrote, “A glimpse into the orchestra pit at intermission reveals a far-flung array of keyboards, which explains the hollow, blunt-edged electronic fill sound around musicians.”

A “musical” is about the music. Is it necessary to tell people this? I believe so. They may go to a production like this and simply conclude that they don't like musicals, not knowing that the real reason was that the music was not the kind of human expression they were seeking.

A group of musicians, playing with their heads and hearts in sync, creates a kind of live chemistry that no machine, however sophisticated, can mimic.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 24, 2005 at 8:52 AM
Holy cow, this is a sick, perverted idea that is creeping into society. Can't anyone tell that the use of electronic gadgets to replace a live orchestra cheapens any production by twentyfold? Anyone who knows anything about good movies recogizes this fact! One of the first things any of my friends mentions when they talk about a movie they really enjoyed, they mention the quality of the soundtrack. All the top-notch shows have well-written soundtracks and live orchestras.

Why then, does ANYONE think that they can get away with slipping a machine into a MUSICAL, for crying out loud? Once word gets out, ticket sales will drop. Is it worth the savings they made by refusing to employ humans? No.

I went to a production of the nutcracker here in town, and they had a CD for the music, which is understandable since it's a small town and difficult to find enough musicians to commit to the performaces. Well, several times during important ballet scenes, just when the main dancer would go for a pirouette, the CD skipped. It was about the tackiest thing I've seen. I'd take bad musicians any day over a skipping CD.

From Marty Dalton
Posted on January 24, 2005 at 5:37 PM
I don't believe in Unions, so I really don't care about that aspect. However, it is nice to hear a professional-sounding "live" group at these shows, but if they don't want to use them, that's their business.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 24, 2005 at 10:19 PM
Say what you like about unions, but without them, orchestra musicians would be paid very little and rehearsals would go on and on for three hours and more. If you ever get a professional (or even semi-professional) orchestra job in the United States, chances are the contract that allows you to be paid a reasonable amount was negotiated by an AFM chapter. And the union is one of the few institutions that cares enough to speak out in an organized fashion about things like replacing musicians with machines!
From kimberlee dray
Posted on January 24, 2005 at 11:03 PM
This sounds like the Walmartization of the music world. Low price at the expense of quality. Eventually it will backfire. If it doesn't, I can just see them doing this to "Curly"--having a machine sing it for him while he lip-syncs. I think "Poor Jud is Dead" would have brand new meaning if it were sung by a machine! UGH! In fact, they might as well dub American Idol . . .
From Marty Dalton
Posted on January 25, 2005 at 1:40 AM
I've played in semi-pro orchestras for very little money. It wasn't a full time job and (in the least paying orchestra I was in) I got paid 30 bucks for a 2 hour rehearsal. Hell, that was 15 bucks an hour to sit on my butt and do what I love.

I think people need to realize how darn near impossible it is to get a full time orchestra gig, and relying on semi-pro gigs is extremely hard to do. That's why I opted for teaching (a steady job). I also think it's crazy that some orchestra's pay a minimum of $90,000 per year. Personally, I think that's too much money for the work. It's no wonder orchestras are folding. I know I'll catch hell for my opinion, but that's my feelings.

I agree that its the Walmartization of music using machines, but that's the way it goes. If people don't like it they won't go see it and the company will lose big deal.

From Sue Donim
Posted on January 25, 2005 at 3:42 AM
Robert, as a UK musician I'm happy to see the LA Phil paying their players $70k; here in Britain I understand a typical salary for a rank-and-file player in an equivalent orchestra would be around £24k.
From Juergen L. Hemm
Posted on January 25, 2005 at 9:40 AM
Wow! Another idiotic invention we don't need. I wish you a lot of success in your campaign against it - hopefully the audience will make a wise choice. Come to think of it, why don't they also invent a virtual audience and make all people superfluous?
:-( Juergen
From Marty Dalton
Posted on January 26, 2005 at 1:50 AM
I just think the serious musician should honestly think before he or she decided to put all the time and energy into music. Just because you spent thousands of dollars on school doesn't mean you're qualified for a full time gig. It also doesn't entitle you to a 6-figure salary.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 26, 2005 at 6:13 AM
A six-figure salary! No, the union does not come close to guaranteeing that. I live in a town abundant with work for musicians, with a strong union presence. I personally know no violinists making a six-figure salary in an orchestra. Most of the musicians I know make a very modest living, working many hours gigging, teaching, and quite often doing non-music day jobs.

Just to be clear!

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