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LA Phil Live beams, sets audiences beaming

Merging classical music with multimedia spectacle and a dash of Hollywood showmanship, the Los Angeles Philharmonic launched its series of high-definition concert simulcasts, LA Phil Live, with a Sunday afternoon performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall that was beamed live to about 450 specially equipped movie theaters across the United States and Canada.

Hoping to prove that classical music aficionados will pay to watch big-screen transmissions of live events in the same way that sports lovers, rock concert fans and opera buffs do, the orchestra began its ambitious venture with a program of works by Beethoven, Bernstein and John Adams that drew substantial crowds from Burbank to Miami and went off with only scattered reports of technical glitches.

Although the Phil declined to provide overall ticket sales figures, attendance appeared to be strong at theaters in many areas of metropolitan Los Angeles and elsewhere. At the AMC Burbank 16, 274 of 294 seats were sold for the screening. At the Regal Cinemas LA Live Stadium 14 in downtown Los Angeles, a mixed-age audience that filled more than two-thirds of the seats clapped and cheered loudly as Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra’s charismatic 29-year-old conductor, led the orchestra through Adams’ “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

At the multi-screen Edwards Irvine Spectrum 21 and IMAX complex, a theater with about 225 seats sold out in advance, leaving a few stragglers who arrived at the box office Sunday afternoon scrambling to make a last-minute trip to another showing in Aliso Viejo.

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At other locations, sales of tickets ranging from $18 to $22 were more mixed. In Chicago, about 50 people attended the event at the ShowPlace ICON on the Near South Side. Twenty-nine tickets were sold for the screening at the Webster Place theatre in an affluent North Side neighborhood. And 84 tickets were sold at the Century 12 Evanston/CineArts 6 and XD, in a well-heeled northern suburb.

One Tuscaloosa movie theater canceled its scheduled screening because of icy road conditions in Alabama.

Deborah Borda, the Phil’s president, said that theaters in Torrance and Rancho Mirage as well as in New York City, Miami and other locations all had reported strong sales. Overall, she pronounced herself “very happy” with the inaugural simulcast.

“It’s a work in progress,” Borda said by phone shortly after the 21/2-hour concert concluded Sunday afternoon. “We’re going to figure out how to develop from here. But I think it’s a really strong start.”

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The Phil aims for its new initiative to raise its global profile and help promote not only its symphonic prowess but its work in areas such as music education. Its partner in the new project, Denver-based NCM Fathom, the entertainment division of National CineMedia, and Cineplex Entertainment, distributes concerts, sporting matches and other entertainment events including Met Live in HD, the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s season of big-screen simulcasts.

If the simulcast’s bubbly host, Vanessa Williams, decked out in a tight-fitting red dress, was the event’s glamorous adornment, its starring role was unmistakably assigned to Dudamel, the Phil’s charismatic principal conductor. Whenever and wherever the camera caught him — donning his jacket in his dressing room, toasting distant spectators with a cup of water, or chatting with Williams about the emotional nuances of the “Jeremiah” — the Venezuelan maestro appeared confident, good-humored and relaxed.

Dudamel will conduct the Phil’s next two simulcasts, a March 13 all-Tchaikovsky program and a June 5 Brahms concert.

To judge by the ample Twitter traffic, many attendees enjoyed the pre-concert interviews and off-stage brushes with the performers that were part of the simulcast’s “Backstage Pass” feature. “This is awesome!” tweeted @vinv22. “They show him [Dudamel] rehearsing, backstage. Directing and then interview him! Like a coach coming off the field.”

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Another Twitter user, @nprclassical, wrote: “Dudamel and the LA Phil, certainly energizing the movie theater audience here in Washington, DC.”

Not everyone, however, was overwhelmed. “Grandma brought me to the movies not to see tron but to see the la philharmonic, 2 30 hrs of torture and sleep with old people laughing,” lamented @fabulousatj, referring to the fantasy film “Tron: Legacy.”

With 14 television cameras shooting the event, spectators got not only backstage perspectives but point-of-view shots from behind the orchestra players, close-ups of principal concertmaster Martin Chalifour’s finger-work, and majestic, stage-to-ceiling panning shots of Frank Gehry’s iconic hall.

A few technical seams showed during the generally smooth-running production. At one point early in the show, Williams was nearly upstaged by an anxious-looking man who appeared to be assisting her. The sight prompted mild laughter from some Regency theater audience members.

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More seriously, in a post for his blog, Sonic Labyrinth, Jeffrey Johnson, a professor of music at the University of Bridgeport (Conn.) and who attended a screening in Branford, Conn., wrote that there was no sound in the theater he attended until midway through the opening Adams piece. People “stormed out looking for refunds,” Johnson wrote. However, in sum he praised the experience, writing: “With some tweaks and some rethinking this series will work.”

Reflecting the demographic makeup of classical music’s core following, audiences at many theaters skewed toward 40 and older. But large numbers of students and young adults also attended.

Joshua Manlutac of Glendale, a senior at Providence High School in Burbank who was attending the AMC Burbank 16 screening with other members of his school choir, said he was seeing the Phil for the first time. He said he probably wouldn’t have attended if it hadn’t been for the school function but that he was enjoying the experience and might attend broadcasts with his family.

At other locales far from Disney Hall, the verdicts were mainly positive. Most of the 17 people who turned up at a 10-screen Cineplex Odeon complex in Guelph, Canada, about an hour west of Toronto, identified themselves as regular attendees of Met Live simulcasts. Although some said they were shocked at Sunday’s small turnout, they predicted more people would come as word-of-mouth spreads.

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Erika de la Riva, 37, drove from Chicago’s south suburbs and came for “Gustavo, definitely,” she said. “I have a bias because he’s a young Latino, he’s very passionate, and his talent is incredible.”

De la Riva came with her friend Everlidys Cabrera, 43, who lives in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. The women say they each see between three and five Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances a year.

Cabrera gave the performance a rave review. “It was great. It was wonderful to see how energetic and how passionate the conductor is during the performance from the perspective of the orchestra. His facial gestures as well as his physical gestures were really wonderful. They kind of had me jumping out of my seat.”

Two other Chicagoans, Joan Hampton and Phyllis Camber, who gave their ages as “over 65,” came at the suggestion of Camber, who regularly attends movie theater broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera’s performances. “This was good but not as fantastic,” Camber said. “The music was wonderful, but the camera was moving around so much I was getting dizzy.”

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Among those attending the screening at the Regal Union Square 14 in Manhattan was composer Adams himself. “The real stars, besides Beethoven, were Dudamel and [Disney] Hall,” Adams said.

Asked what it was like to hear his music being played live in a movie theater, Adams replied: “I was so excited I went through half a bag of popcorn.”

Times staff writers David Ng in Burbank and Ann Powers in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and special correspondents Kevin McKeough in Chicago, Christopher Smith in Irvine, James C. Taylor in New York and Marcia Adair in Guelph, Canada, contributed to this report.


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