The Music Isn’t Live, Either


Take heart, Olympic detail fiends: If the last two weeks have gotten you in the habit of squinting at your television in search of flubbed lutzes and leaning judges, you’ll still have plenty of subtleties and misdirection to look for in Sunday night’s closing ceremonies.

Like the performances that opened the Games on Feb. 8, the send-off performances won’t be as live as they look.

Instead, facing a global audience and treacherous weather, the producers and headliners will be relying on recordings to bolster performances on a bill that includes ‘N Sync, Harry Connick Jr., Gloria Estefan, Christina Aguilera, Bon Jovi, Dianne Reeves, Earth Wind & Fire and dancer Savion Glover, along with a few surprises.


“There are some people who are electing to do things live, but I haven’t heard yet if we’re going to let them,” said a spokeswoman for Don Mischer, the executive producer of the ceremonies. “The weather will obviously play a role.”

The opening ceremonies, watched by an estimated 45.6 million viewers in the U.S. and 3.5 billion worldwide, featured bow-syncing by the Utah Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma, and lip-syncing by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Sting and others. Producers and participants said performers were singing and playing over recordings of themselves made weeks or months before.

The not-quite-live nature of these performances has been something of an open secret. Officials at the Utah Symphony, in fact, discussed the arrangements in public interviews before the Games. Mischer told reporters that “we feel it’s important to have the orchestra and choir on stage, but it’s most important that the sound be good around the world. Music is more or less the soul of the ceremonies.”

For West Coast viewers, the rest of the Games haven’t been entirely spontaneous either. Despite the word “LIVE” appearing frequently in the upper-left-hand corner of NBC’s screen, most Olympic events have been tape-delayed to reach viewers during prime-time hours here. The network acknowledges that with a second superimposed footnote: “Recorded live from a previous broadcast.”

Still, it’s likely that millions of viewers have been imagining more spontaneity than they’ve actually seen. The Games’ broadcaster, NBC, has contributed to that. On Jan. 15, for instance, the “Today” show featured an interview with Olympics theme music composer John Williams, and co-host Matt Lauer signed off by saying first that Williams’ Olympics-commissioned composition, “Call of the Champions,” was on a CD available in stores, and then that the piece “will be performed live on Feb. 8th during the opening ceremonies.”

What Lauer didn’t say is that without the recording, the Feb. 8 show would have been impossible.


“It’s not something that we’d do in any circumstances other than this,” said David Green, orchestra manager for the Utah Symphony, noting that temperatures on the field were around 20 degrees on the night of the opening ceremonies.

“None of the musicians would even entertain the idea of putting their instruments out of doors in that weather,” said Green.

In those temperatures, fingers soon lose their nimbleness, wood warps or cracks and strings quickly slip out of tune. Fifty-six of the orchestra’s 83 musicians play stringed instruments.

So Mischer’s production company came up with a way to make it work: Mischer would provide a disposable set of instruments, which after the show would be given to Utah schools, and it would outfit the orchestra members for the cold--from sweaters to scarves to hats to gloves to silk underwear, Green said.

From the pre-Olympic recording sessions in November and January to the performance at Rice-Eccles Olympic Stadium, “it’s been an educational experience,” said Keith Lockhart, the music director of the Utah Symphony.

Lockhart has also served as conductor for the Boston Pops since 1995. He noted that on Feb. 3, when he directed the Boston orchestra’s pregame performance at the Super Bowl in New Orleans--a room-temperature gig in the Louisiana Superdome--the producers and players had the same prerecorded setup in place.


Basically, said Lockhart, he’s learned that “any time this sort of thing happens, it’s done this way.” And when the temperature is below freezing, he added, there’s no real choice: “Orchestral instruments don’t function when it’s 25 degrees.”

As for the needling references he’s heard to the Milli Vanilli lip-syncing scandal of 1990, Lockhart said there’s no parallel because “everything that was recorded, we played.”

In the Milli Vanilli controversy, the pop band’s frontmen, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan, and their German producer Frank Farian admitted that the duo never sang a note on their “Girl You Know It’s True” album, which sold 10 million copies, or in concert. In a 1992 move to settle a consumer lawsuit, the duo’s record company, Arista, agreed to give partial refunds to fans who bought recordings and attended concerts.


Playing Live Along With Recorded Soundtrack

One of eeriest aspects of the Olympic adventure, Green said, was sitting amid the musicians during their quasi-performance, hearing genuinely live instrumental sounds around him while the full recorded soundtrack echoed through the stadium.

“I sat right in the orchestra,” Green said. “And they were very caught up in the experience of it all, and they did play. They either followed the conductor closely or wore headsets. You could hear some instruments stick out, because the strings really get swallowed up. You could definitely hear the percussions and the brass. It was like an orchestra that wasn’t well-balanced.... I think the world would have looked at the Utah Symphony pretty sadly, had we not prerecorded.”

In the offices of the 360-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir, spokesman Randy Riplinger said those singers “have many times prerecorded and sung over the top of it.” Among the occasions: presidential inaugurals, Utah Jazz basketball games and church productions at the 21,000-seat Conference Center in Salt Lake City.


But not every performer in Salt Lake was well-versed in these subtleties. When dancer Glover landed a spot in the closing ceremonies, the producers surprised him by insisting that he prerecord a “tap track” and dance along to it, instead of creating the sounds live.

“I’ve never done that before, I always improvise my solos,” Glover told The Times. “But now I have to choreograph a routine and stick to it.”

Word of the prerecorded performances has provoked no particular outcry in Salt Lake City, although the subject was raised in a Feb. 19 letter to the editor of the Salt Lake City Tribune.

In that note, reader Bill Bynum complained that at the opening ceremonies, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s performance of Williams’ composition also included the voices of the child choristers of the Madeleine Choir School, “who had recorded the song earlier with the Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony” but were not invited to appear in the stadium.

Apparently, the letter writer suggested, the event’s organizers believe “that children should be heard but not seen.”