Although James Westwater says there is no real comparison to what he calls photochoreography, there is Walt Disney’s 1940 film “Fantasia,” which helps explain his intentions behind Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s visually stirring performance set for Saturday
Think of Mickey Mouse in the film’s most recognized segment, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The orchestral music of French composer Paul Dukas comes to life as Mickey is outwitted by a bewitched broom.
Photochoreography works much in the same way. However, Westwater says that unlike the original “Fantasia,” his images have had better luck with audiences.
“ ‘Fantasia’ was a dream of Walt Disney, and it flopped initially; my take is it was too high-brow for the low-brow, and too low-brow for the high-brow. It was stuck in the middle, but after a while it did catch on,” Westwater says. “It shows that others before me have received the value of combining great music with visual images.”
The Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s program for “A Lincoln Portrait” adds a photographic element to the orchestra’s Masterworks concert.
Westwater, who has worked with more than 150 orchestras across the country and abroad for nearly 40 years, will join the Philharmonic with his photochoreography to Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Lark Ascending.”
For Copland’s piece, Westwater compiled 300 images from the U.S. Library of Congress to create “The Eternal Struggle,” which documents life before and after Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
The performance also includes excerpts of Lincoln’s famous documents narrated by Johnny Warren, a local Lincoln Financial Group employee who won the company’s talent contest. Westwater says he has worked with renowned narrators Tom Brokaw and Maya Angelou for the piece as well.
For Vaughan Williams’ nature-inspired “Lark Ascending,” Westwater, an environmentalist, captured images of rainforests while traveling in Central America to create “Vanishing Forest.”
Andrew Constantine, the Philharmonic’s music director and conductor, says the visual performance engages both the ears and eyes of its audience.
“It’s a wonderful combination of visual imagery and music, which I think appeals to senses in a different way,” Constantine says.
“There is a synergy between the two that really heightens the experience of what is being communicated and the relevance of the historical context. It’s a way of drawing people in a very complete way.”
Westwater, who now works with his son-in-law Nicholas Bardonnay, compiles hundreds of thematically related images that change with the movements of the orchestra. The images are projected on a 440-square-foot three-panel panoramic screen positioned over the orchestra.
Westwater says for many orchestras who face the challenge of retaining audiences, photochoreography gives visual context to help in understanding classic works.
“The communities don’t serve the orchestra, the orchestra serves the community. (Orchestras) are going to be successful to the degree to which they serve their community effectively,” he said.
“Great music should serve life. You can’t make people like great music. They have to have context to feel comfortable with it and not intimidated by it.”
Westwater says an example of integrative performances includes conductor Murry Sidlen’s concert, “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” which integrates Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem” with historical context of a choir of 150 Jewish prisoners being held at the Prague concentration camp Terezin. The choir performed the piece for its Nazi captors and fellow prisoners, singing defiant lyrics they were not allowed to speak.
Sidlin’s performance includes historic footage of the camp, actors and the environmental accents of a concentration camp for the audience.
Premiering the piece in 2002, Sidlin has conducted the performance in locations from Portland, Ore., to Jerusalem in 2013.
“You have to be mindful of the changing demographics of your audience. They are much more visually oriented,” Westwater said. “You can hear what orchestras play, but you can’t experience it. We have to do things that are different for the audience to experience the joy and wonder of classical music.”
Although the photochoreography is a welcomed element for audiences, Constantine says it’s also important not to create programming around one strategy.
“If you do it all the time relentlessly, it actually becomes saturating. It would be overwhelming to do it nonstop,” he says.
“I’m not somebody who thinks you have to throw the baby out with bathwater in this sort of situation. We do need to engage, but we need to show relevance to what we do already.”
Besides Copland’s piece, the concert will include another American composer: George Antheil, the self-proclaimed “bad boy” of classical music.
Constantine says he first focused on Antheil, a young composer from Trenton, N.J., who began his professional career in 1920s Europe, when programming the Masterworks concert. The composer blended the traditional works of European composers with what Constantine says is a young, enterprising American influence.
The Philharmonic will perform Antheil’s Symphony No.6, a bold piece Constantine says he has never heard performed by an orchestra.
“It’s hardly ever done, but it’s an absolutely fantastic piece,” he says. “What I have always maintained is to find music that I think that audience will like. I never bring music to the stage that people won’t able to understand and enjoy.”
He says the orchestra continues trying to further engage the community with more accessible programming, venues and show times.
He also expects that after this initial performance, there will be plenty of people wanting to enjoy more of Westwater’s growing repertoire.
“It’s an incredibly energetic performance, which I have always enjoyed,” he says. “People will enjoy it enormously, and they will be asking it to be programmed. I have no fears about that at all.”