'Keeping Score'

Supporters and marketers of classical and orchestral music are constantly looking for new ways to increase the popularity and relevance of their art to the general public. "Pops" and "Sing-Along Messiah" programs are standard fare now for orchestras, while children are introduced to the classics through books and videos like "Beethoven Lives Upstairs" and "Mr. Bach Comes To Call." Musicians such as Lara St. John, Vanessa-Mae, and the Eroica Trio introduce sex-appeal to the marketing mix. A recent online contribution to the cause is Keeping Score: MTT on Music - and this new site offers an effective demonstration of how the Web can be used to make classical music more accessible.

Merely one arm of a five year multi-media campaign including television, radio, the Internet and commercial DVDs, this collaboration between PBS's Great Performances, and the San Francisco Symphony and its director, Michael Tilson Thomas ("MTT"), is already a valuable resource for introducing a wider audience to classical music. (One can only imagine the breadth of content five years from now.) That's not to say that this is a flawless exercise, but there will be ample time to correct any current weaknesses during the full life of the site.

Using Flash 6 to deliver its content, Keeping Score opens with a brief Splash page, some background information about the program, and entry into the two sections currently available at this first stage of the enterprise. Geared to complement a pair of Great Performances' installments broadcast this past June, the first of these sections explores Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony. And while you may have missed the TV broadcasts, the material here is still relevant should you have a general interest in the composer, or acquiring an interest in classical music.

With both a text and video introduction, the 4th Symphony section offers three ways to examine Tchaikovsky's work. "Four Movements" breaks the piece into the themes of Fate, Childhood, Play and Russia, and presents each movement with a multi-media presentation in which excerpts from the symphony are accompanied by subtitles, historic background, family photographs, and period images. (The presentations also pause occasionally to call special attention to the specific intent and impact of chosen passages of music.) "Tchaikovsky's Story" juxtaposes the composer's career with those of contemporaries and world events through an unusual 3-D Timeline, while "Explore the Orchestra" uses text and video clips to introduce visitors to the 17 instruments used in performing the 4th Symphony.

Given the slightly less Tchaikovsky-specific nature of its content, Explore also makes a nice transition into the site's other main section, Music's Primal Moves - which investigates the ways that day-to-day life is reflected in a composer's work. "Emotional Roots" uses short audio clips from diverse composers to demonstrate how music can express not only such emotions as Anger, Happiness, Sorrow and Wonder, but even nuances of those emotions. (The section on Wonder ranges from the "monumental" "Great Gate of Kiev," to Ravel's exotic "Empress of the Pagodas" - and if Bela Bartok's strange "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste" wasn"t used in at least one episode of the Twilight Zone, it should have been.)

Fortunately, even for those of us with a limited exposure to classical music, many of the examples used here will be familiar. You may not know Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, first movement by name, but you'll know it when you hear it.

Finally, "Match the Music" encourages some creative comparisons by inviting visitors to find the best parings between selected passages of music and famous paintings. Of course, if you're of a contrary nature, you can always aim for less obvious combinations - such as Edvard Munch's, "The Scream" and Aaron Copland's, "Music for the Theater."

In terms of design, Keeping Score is easy on both the eyes and on the surfer's navigational skills. Navigation between the site"s sections sits above the main viewing area, while navigation within sits below. Frequent video commentaries by Thomas, embedded into the main window, take center stage when selected and automatically return to the originating page when done - and, while constantly out-of-sync with the picture during my visit, the audio always fed clearly and without interruption. Attention to detail is reflected in such touches as the background images in the Emotional Roots presentation - which, while merely being used as an almost invisible backdrop, nevertheless change to reflect the subject matter. While a tight squeeze on an 800x600 screen, all of Keeping Score should be visible without scrolling if you collapse your browser"s button bars.

(For reasons that Flash programmers could probably answer but are beyond my limited knowledge -I've encountered this with other Flash presentations in the past- links occasionally seem to need to be mouse clicked with a bit more determination and/or duration than the typical HTML link. So if a link doesn't appear to be launching anything, just hold the mouse button down a little longer that usual, and you'll probably have success.)

The only part of the site that was consistently frustrating was the "Explore the Score" feature within the Four Movements presentations. Designed to synchronize a printed score of Tchaikovsky's 4th with a video of the San Francisco Symphony in performance - as well as offering Thomas' notes on specific passages, the feature is ambitious to say the least.

Unfortunately, the demonstration didn't take advantage of Flash's inherent strength - the ability to preload a feature before playing - and would frequently fall silent, out-of sync, or both, as the streaming feed was interrupted. The process would also ignore any attempts to pause or stop the playback until long after the commands were given, and on more than one occasion, I found that it was quicker to force quit and relaunch the browser than to wait for Explore the Score to catch-up with itself or my commands. With luck, this problem is merely a symptom of a server temporarily overwhelmed by unexpectedly heavy traffic. With more luck, it will be adapted for preloading, because if it worked, it would definitely be an interesting exhibit. (Even more interesting for those who could read music.)

With a planned five-year run, and three programs per year, online visitors can look forward to 14 more installments before all this is done (with the next planned episode focusing on Beethoven's continuing influence on music). And even with its online hiccups, the website (and the TV series) promises to grow into an exceptional resource for both personal and classroom introductions to classical music.

Keeping Score: MTT on Music can be found at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/shows/tchaikovsky4/multimedia/keepingscore.html.

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