By Les Roka – November 21, 2019
THE UTAH REVIEW
What does it mean to taste sound, or connect it to other senses besides hearing? Some individuals have synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon, in which music, for example, allows the listener to see musical notes in different shades of colors. Scientists also believe that even individuals who do not have synesthesia actually can experience similar effects by being immersed in a multi-sensory activity.
Only the second orchestra in the U.S. to do so, the Utah Symphony produced many thrilling moments related to synesthesia in America’s Wonders in 3-D: A Musical and Cinematic Journey with music that was composed, arranged and synchronized to a breathtaking series of filmed tableaux on a 3-D LED screen. Wearing yellow-framed 3-D glasses, the audience consistently registered its delight.
The overall effects were stunning in numerous moments, especially in the first half, which featured some of the country’s most iconic natural wonders. These included four of Utah’s greatest natural treasures in the southern part of the state, a most fitting connection. The concert was played on the centennial anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s signing of Congressional legislation that created Zion National Park, the country’s first.
The alignment between the orchestral music, conducted by Conner Gray Covington, and the film was superb, especially in the Water segment, with original score by Thiago Tiberio. Likewise, it was in the closing first-half selection of Cloudburst, featuring one of the movements from Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, written nearly 90 years ago for the Paul Whiteman Jazz Orchestra.
Both of these sections in the first half produced spine-tingling moments, especially in Water’s ice hiking passage, with musicians producing sound effects that were spot on in their cues. The Cloudburst scene followed rafters after a torrential rainfall. One of the percussion instruments used in the original music is a metal thunder sheet. The 3-D effects heightened the vicarious tensions perfectly for audience members, including the sensation of water splashing back in the face.
The collaboration to produce the event is an artistic marvel of its own merits. Ed Kasses of Princeton Entertainment, with a long distinguished history of producing memorable concerts featuring many of the best known singers and musical artists from the last 40 years, conceived the idea. Some Utah Symphony audience members will remember a 2017 concert that Kasses’ company produced, Pokémon: Symphonic Evolutions, which featured carefully timed visuals that appeared on giant screens in the hall, as drawn from the classic games.
Kasses wanted to raise the bar on audience immersive experiences in the concert hall but one that also would enhance the 3-D impact beyond the conventional means of classic IMAX projection technology. The project would take years to complete, as he searched nationally for the right creative and technical partners.
For filming, Kasses turned to Shaun MacGillivray, president of MacGillivray Freeman Films and producer of numerous 3-D giant screen films. The MacGillivray family is long known for creating cinematic documentaries shot on 70mm film. Greg MacGillivray made the first IMAX film in the 1970s To Fly!, which today continues to be screened at the National Air and Space Museum in the Smithsonian Institution.
Kasses says MacGillivray’s company was a “godsend” offering the “most spectacular footage.” MacGillivray says that his team immediately embraced the opportunity. “We wanted to figure out how to make it work for this new platform,” he adds. “We were delighted by the prospects of producing such an expressive and spiritual experience with the live orchestra included.”
Another partner was 3-D Live, Inc., from Los Angeles, a tech company known for various patented technologies involving holographic displays as well as a LED screen system that does not involve traditional projection means. The imagery can leap off the screen that envelops the audience without triggering fatigue or effects of discomforting stress that sometimes occur with other 3-D technology. Many augmented reality experiences typically require expensive headsets. In this instance, the experience can be scaled easily to large audiences by offering low-cost, customizable 3-D glasses.
As Ivan Ceron, lead tech production manager, explains, “the experience definitely can heighten the effects of synesthesia.” Screens similar to the concert’s 3-D LED version, which measures 40 feet wide by 17 feet tall, can be seen in New York City near Times Square as well at California’s Great America theme park and the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.
One striking result in this presentation is the difference from how colors can become oversaturated in typical projection technology. The colors on the 3-D LED screen were rich, vibrant and true. They were convincing to anyone in Utah who has visited the familiar natural wonders of the Canyonlands, Arches and Zion National Parks, and, of course, Moab. These visual effects carried over to the second half of the concert, honoring some of the nation’s most recognized urban skylines along with footage highlighting the unique vibes of the featured cities.
Given that this was only the second time for a full presentation involving so many complex interacting elements, the event came off with barely a handful of minor hiccups. It took a few tries for the cues to come up for the Mountains segment but Covington ad-libbed the small delay in good humor, especially when an audience member shouted, “We love the mountains!”
The music and film synchronized nicely at the start of the New Orleans segment in the second half but the alignment slid off track at the end. Overall, the alignment was closely synchronized in many more instances than otherwise. It also was spectacular in numerous moments during both halves of the concert. The Utah Symphony performance came less than seven weeks after it premiered as a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra pops concert.
For music, Kasses and his team mixed classic expressions from the repertoire with new music by various composers. For the natural wonders portion, the selections included Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite and Tiberio’s arrangement of the traditional song of Shenandoah. Original music included segments by Don Hart (Mountains) and Judson Green (Sandstone). The second half featured standards such as New York, New York; I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway, When the Saints Go Marching In, My Kind of Town, Deep in The Heart of Texas and a boffo instrumental by Hart of Gloria Estefan’s Conga, honoring Miami, which put the precise finish on the Southern Cities medley. “We wanted to balance it out, so sometimes the music is in the forefront ahead of the video and, in others, it’s secondary to the video,” Kasses explains.
Many of the vantage views in the natural and urban settings were extraordinary. A good amount of footage featuring the natural wonders also was shot from drones, completed before unmanned aircraft were banned permanently by the U.S. National Park Service.
Tenor Adam Fisher joined the concert’s second half, which mixed songs and instrumentals, as arranged variously by Hart, Tiberio and Josh Trentadue. Fisher is as charismatic as he is versatile in style of singing. His portfolio includes music in contemporary opera, operettas and Broadway.
The highlight in the second half was the encore with Fisher’s deeply felt rendition of Don McLean’s Starry, Starry Night, accompanied by the orchestra’s subtle, emotional interpretation. Covington guided the nightcap to perfect synchronization with the video that recapped the imagery seen earlier in the concert.
The concert event is slated to be taken to other cities. Kasses says another major project for Princeton Entertainment is planned for 2026, when the U.S. celebrates its 250th anniversary of independence.