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Big screen video makes Mathis larger than life for concert goers

Milwaukee Symphony tries image magnification for Valentine's concert

Image magnification system set up by United Visual RentalsIt was a cold night in February, but the sounds of romantic melodies coming from the Milwaukee Auditorium warmed the hearts of thousands of concertgoers celebrating Valentine's Day in style. Who better to headline the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's Valentine Pop Concert than Johnny Mathis, whose decades of hit love songs have become romantic icons?

As incredible as Mathis' voice continues to be, chances are a lot of ticket holders had opera glasses or binoculars hidden away when they arrived that night to see the 62 year old artist in person. If you've ever been in the Milwaukee Auditorium's vast Bruce Hall, you know the stage can seem as distant as a memory if your ticket puts you in the back rows. But on this February night, all 7,000 people had the best seat in the house thanks to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and United Visual.

The Pop Concerts

The MSO is Wisconsin's only professional orchestra and performs nearly 200 concerts a year, in both large and small venues all over the world. Two million people come to downtown Milwaukee each year to attend Orchestra events. A few years ago, the MSO signed bandleader Doc Severinson as its Principal Pops Conductor, and it's his influence that brings the big names to the MSO stage.

The Pop Concerts are always big sellers for the Milwaukee Symphony, which prides itself on being "the orchestra for people of all kinds of different tastes," according to Public Relations Director Andy Buelow. "We accept a broader mission than some larger city orchestras. There's no reason for the barriers to be so distinct anymore."

The best part about these concerts is that they're fun. Names such as Ray Charles, Natalie Cole and the Manhattan Transfer are on the list of past and future performers, so it's not unusual for ticket demand to exceed seating. When the MSO decided to move the Mathis concert to Bruce Hall, they knew they would have to do something to bring the front and the back of the hall closer together, or a lot of the concert would be lost for those furthest away. What they decided to do was treat the whole concert as if it was a live television production, but the signal would only go to the audience. They would rely on the viewing screens to bring the performers to the audience.

Setting up the video

UV Rental brought in a complete video switching and control systemThe day before the concert United Visual crews moved in and mounted two 15 x 20' screens, one on either side of the stage. They hung two Panasonic LCD projectors firmly on trusswork. Then they stationed one broadcast camera halfway down the center aisle (in order to shoot frontal close ups of the performers) and two other cameras on the stage. Behind the scenes, United installed a master control center consisting of a switcher, preview monitors, source monitors and a variety of other equipment. Finally United's technicians laid down cables and connected all the components together. United hired a freelance camera crew out of Chicago to run the equipment, and the MSO brought in Bill Werner of Milwaukee Public Television to call the shots.

MSO Operations Manager Susan Steele said they chose Werner because of his experience with the Symphony. "You need someone who knows what camera to call when...who is familiar with the orchestra, knows the music and when the violins will be playing, or the brass."

Since the Orchestra played without Mathis for the first half of the evening, United Visual treated the performance as two separate concerts. For the first half, they placed one camera behind the orchestra, allowing close-ups of Associate Conductor Andrews Sill. Intermission meant some fancy footwork for the UV crews running the performance. "We had to reset camera positions during a 15 minute time frame so it was pretty stressful," says United's on-site manager Mike Hahn. "We pulled the two cameras from the stage and put them into the small private boxes at the front corners, so we could have frontal shots of Mathis. When we moved the cameras we had to use different cable because they were all different lengths. But we got it done on time with only a few minor quirks." Susan Steele agrees. "They were up and ready to go on time. They were minor glitches but certainly nothing that came across to the audience."

Less stressful was setup and use of the Panasonic projectors, which performed flawlessly. "We really have to have equipment we can trust," says Hahn. "If one of these units were to fail, it would be just about impossible to climb up and replace it during a performance."

Audience reaction

This was the first time the MSO had tried visual enhancement of a concert at Bruce Hall, and reaction from the audience has been nothing but positive. "This is a long narrow room, so if you're sitting even half way back you can see nothing with definition," says concert goer Barb Kreski. "That may not matter as much if the symphony is performing, but with a solo artist like Johnny Mathis, you want to see his face. He puts a lot into a song that goes beyond the music. You wouldn't have been able to see any of that without the monitors."

You can bet a lot of other audience members had their eyes on the screens instead of the stage for much of the concert. The screens make the whole experience much more intimate for everyone. "I think the audience likes it," says Steele, who admits the technology is a big help. "It's just the nature of doing business in a larger venue." Since more and more solo artists are now performing with the Milwaukee Symphony orchestras, will they use this technology again? Chances are.