Swan Lake live in 3D: a cheap seat at the Mariinsky Theatre

Watching Swan Lake through 3D glasses might feel strange at first, but the Mariinsky Theatre's live 3D broadcast from St Petersburg provides an affordable way to go to the ballet in Russia.

It’s very strange to sit in a silent auditorium and yet be surrounded by the pre-theatre rustlings and murmurings of an audience more than a thousand miles away. You move your head, looking for the source of the low muttering, the occasional bursts of laughter, the polite manoeuvring of bags and feet as people squeeze themselves into seats, without being able to find it. The fact that you’re wearing 3D glasses, and your vision is thus greyed and blurred, only compounds this sense of dislocation.

When the screen eventually illuminates, you crane forward, eager to reunite sound with sight. The camera pans slowly, showing you the crowded, opulent interior of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. There’s just a hint of voyeurism in this gaze – the knowledge that you can see this phantom audience but they can’t see you is hard to put aside.

The reason for this lop-sided link up – the faux velour and popcorn smells of a screen in London’s West End with all the swags and brocade that remain of Imperial Russia – is ballet. 275 years after the now-ubiquitous Pepita-Ivanov revival of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was premiered, the Russian theatre has brought in the 3D technology that so brought Avatar and Life of Pi such commercial success to beam a performance of the ballet live around the world. 

Evgeny Ivanchenko and Ekaterina Kondaurova in Swan Lake

The use of 3D in the cinema is yet to be universally accepted by critics and audiences alike – while a few films, like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, have been widely acclaimed for their use of it, the technology too often feels “bolted on” after the fact as an excuse to bump up ticket prices. At the same time, live 2D broadcasts, such as of operas from the Met in New York, or plays from the National Theatre in London, have increased greatly in popularity in the last couple of years, since they enable people to enjoy blockbuster, sold out productions for a fraction of the price of a seat in the theatre itself.

So can live 3D work for ballet? It’s certainly a tempting concept, since a reasonably-priced seat for a ballet at an opera house more often yields an exclusive view of the tops of the dancers’ heads than anything else. And as demonstrated here by the Mariinsky, it certainly seems like it might provide a workable alternative. Rather than well-muscled legs zooming out of the screen at my face as I had feared, the effect was subtle, enhancing the surreality and wildness of the forest where the Prince first catches a glimpse of his swan princess. The effect really comes into its own, however, in the big corps de ballet scenes, when Siegfried and Odette float among serried ranks of posed swans, their elegantly waving arms perfectly delineated through the magic spectacles.

The 3D is most effective in the big corps de ballet scenes

Russian ballet has been in the news for reasons other than its dancers’ athletic or creative feats of late – the acid attack on Sergei Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, earlier this year receiving international coverage. The feuding and funding rows the subsequent reporting revealed in Russia’s ballet community no doubt continue, and in the light of that it’s easy to see this programme of live global broadcasts as the obvious PR response – an attempt to put the focus back on classical ballet and its long history in Russia.

But at the same time, the broadcasts could provide an affordable introduction to an art form that was once the exclusive amusement of the aristocracy. In the Twentieth Century Russian ballet’s fortunes have been closely tied with the country’s politics; indeed, the very name of the theatre has chronicled these shifts. Originally named the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, it has now become the State Academic Mariinsky Theatre (also being en route the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet and the Leningrad State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet). In the theatre itself, it might be the case that the Tsar’s Grand Dukes have merely been replaced by Putin’s oligarchs and their associates, but by digitally opening its doors to the masses like this, the Mariinsky is sharing a piece of ballet’s history with everyone who can afford the price of a cinema ticket. And given that you can even see the dancers’ facial expressions and the details of the magnificent costumes and sets, you’ve arguably got the best seat in the house.

You will have to swap your tiara and furs for a pair of 3D specs, though.

Principal dancers Evgeny Ivanchenko and Ekaterina Kondaurova try out the 3D specs.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser