San Francisco Symphony at 100

San Francisco Symphony at 100 concert. Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony in a gala concert in honor of the San Francisco Symphony's first centenary.  The concert portion of program has 75 minutes of music as follows:

1. Aaron Copland - Billy the Kid Ballet Suite (26 minutes)

2. Felix Mendelssohn - Violin Concerto in E minor (with violinist Itzhak Perlman) (28 minutes)

3. Benjamin Britten - The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (16 and 1/2 half minutes)

4. John Adams - Short Ride in a Fast Machine (4 and 1/2 half minutes)

Also included is a 58-minute documentary narrated by Amy Tan about the history of the San Francisco Symphony. 13 minutes of vignettes from the documentary are also mixed in with the concert (i.e., appear twice in the total runtime listed on the package of 2:26). Finally, there are trailers for titles in the SFSmedia "Keeping Score" series.

Directed for TV by Gary Halvorson; audio direction by Jack Vad. This disc is self-published by the San Francisco Symphony on the SFSmedia label. We bought a copy of this in England. It has an "ALL" region logo on the back of the keep case, and it plays fine on an A-region player.

This title is available in DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray disc is, per information on the keep case, "presented" in 96 kHz/24 bit sound. When I first saw this, I thought this meant that 96 kHz/24 bit sampling technology was used to originally record the concert material. But this is not correct; the original recording was made at 48kHz. More on this below.

For folks in the U.S. or who are used to buying U.S. products, the best way to buy this may be to contact the San Francisco Symphony Store directly, where the price was $35 plus shipping and handling (on June 16, 2012).  The price may be considerably more with outside vendors.  Grade: C

This title is primarily a resource or souvenir for folks who are interested in the history of the San Francisco Symphony.  The documentary of 58 minutes (in stereo and mostly old black and white legacy video) is more interesting than I thought it would be, but I doubt that many people would watch this more than once or twice. Portions of the documentary are mixed in with the concert, probably to make it more interesting as a TV program. The San Francisco Symphony has had a lot of famous conductors. The symphony outreach program maybe has been the most successful of any U.S. orchestra.

So what about the 75-minute gala concert? I note that the pieces presented are pretty light---more suitable for a "pops" or gala event than a normal symphony concert. But nobody will be harmed by watching this.

Now let's explore further the surround sound technology used on this HDVD. The original recording was at 48kHz,  the same as a lot of legacy video.  SFSmedia states on the keep case that the sound (Blu-ray only) is "presented" in 96 kHz/24 bit audio. This claim does not say that 96 kHz/24 bit sampling technology was used in the original recording. So what's going on here? Well, it turns out that Dolby has a new product they call "Advanced Dolby TrueHD." They have a special round, gold logo for product. The idea is that legacy 48kHz recordings are upconverted to 96 kHz/24 bit files. Then post-recording techniques are used to improve the sound, which is then passed on to the Dolby TrueHD output in 96 kHz/24 bit. For more on this, see www.vimeo.com. This video tells as much about all this as you will likely want to know---it even has a cut of Jack Vad, the sound guy at SFSmedia, touting the use of Advanced Dolby TrueHD in subject title.

Advanced Dolby TrueHD is completely different from true 96 kHz/24 bit sound that is captured at 96 kHz/24bit and correctly treated from A to Z in the sound reproduction chain. They say, "Garbage in = garbage out." Here I guess the expression should be, "Garbage in = advanced garbage out." As far as our Gala concert is concerned,  the sound quality seems good to excellent, but not exceptional. If there are benefits from Advanced Dolby TrueHD in this title, it would probably be most evident in the sound of Perlman's violin in the Mendelssohn Concerto.

We are probably soon going to see more of Advanced Dolby TrueHD and it's little round logo. So this merits  more discussion. Is  Advanced Dolby TrueHD something good that will improve our HDVDs? Or is it merely another gimmick designed to puff an obsolete product by confusing the customers who buy HDVDs? Time will tell. 

But there is a deeper issue that also deserves thought. There is nothing these days exotic or super high-tech about 96 kHz/24bit. Many of the classical CD/SACD recording companies have for years been using at least 96 kHz/24bit from beginning to the end in their products. Advanced Dolby True-HD with its upconverting is not in itself an absurdity. If there is an absurdity here, wouldn't it be that SFSmedia used obsolete 48kHz in 2011 to record its orchestra? If there is any benefit from 96kHz/24 bit, why not use that spec for the entire recording chain starting with sampling at the original capture? It would be a shame if SFSmedia and other classical video producers use the availability of Advanced Dolby TrueHD as an excuse to stick with outdated recording technology.

Unfortunately, I have another criticism (also constructive, I hope) for this title: all the concert video in this title was shot to DVD specifications, and this is not acceptable in an HDVD recording of a symphony orchestra. We have drawn the battle lines on this subject in our special article on standards for HDVD video content. If you have not recently read this article, please do so now as the menu has changed. I will not repeat here all the principles set out in our article. But I will explain how the most important principles apply to the works presented in this SFS gala concert.

Billy the Kid Ballet Suite.

This is maybe the most exasperating example I have seen of a DVD masquerading as an HDVD. A DVD by its nature has to be a string of fast close-up shots of the conductor and small parts of the orchestra. The good HDVD shoot is the opposite: it should be a calm presentation with a mix of long-range and shorter-range shots (plus close-ups) centered on the orchestra rather than the conductor. No one video can serve both the DVD and HDVD masters.

This Billy the Kid lasts 20 minutes, 15 seconds, and I count no fewer than 428 cuts. That works out to 2.8 seconds per clip, the fastest video I have numbers on to date. I think the ideal HDVD of a symphony should have an average clip time of of 12 to 15+ seconds; this suggests that this Billy the Kid is moving as much as 4 or 5 times faster than it should on Blu-ray. Another hallmark of a DVD symphony recording is the use of "easy shots" like the conductor alone, the conductor seen over the backs of the orchestra members, and "instrument-only" views. Well, I count 106 shots of the conductor alone, 28 shots of the conductor shot over the backs of the players, and 67 shots of instruments in which you don't see the player. This means that in 47% of this video, you don't clearly see the face of any player in the orchestra.

The vast majority of the players you do see are solos, sections of 2 players, or meaningless shots of tiny parts of the larger sections. In the good HDVD, I want to see many shots of the whole orchestra and the large sections. This is almost completely missing in this Billy the Kid. Here we have 6 whole-orchestra shots. They are worth little for the following reasons: the shot at 5:16 proves how beautiful it could be, but lasts only 2 seconds; the shot at 7:28 is too far back so that the orchestra only takes up about 60% of the frame; the lovely shot at 11:21 is snuffed out after 2 seconds of life; the stupid shot at 14:00 takes up only 20% of the frame (there are two of these); the shot at 14:35 takes up only 80% of the frame; and the shot at 21:26 (best of the miserable bunch) lasts only 4 seconds.

In addition, the TV director has too many other problems.  The PQ is a tad soft. His cameraman can't get 4 horns in a row in good focus. There is confusing and senseless panning around in large string sections. The director allows at least 3 shots (see 6:08) where the screen is divided diagonally to show 2 different instrument-only shots on the screen at one time, and there is another similar shot where you see two players simultaneously on the same screen (18:29). These split-screen shots would not make the grade in a college video project.

One could argue that the musical structure of Billy the Kid lends itself to short video clips. Probably this is correct for a DVD where close-ups is the main tool the TV director has. In DVD, the TV director has to take the "look-mom-what-I-can-do" approach even if it threatens the viewer with a migraine. But with the power of high-def cameras, the TV director can do so much more. And the best thing he can do is structure a balanced program that gives the viewer some control over what he wants to watch, and then get out of the way.

For bad picture content and unexciting picture quality alone, I would give this part of the program a "D."

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto

In a concerto, the focus is on the soloist. Even in DVD this tends to allow a slowdown in the number of cuts. The TV director can have long close-ups of the soloist and the result will be pleasant to the viewer. Here I count 177 cuts in 28 minutes, which works out to a fairly pleasant average of 9.5 seconds per cut. Perlman gets 58% of the cuts. Because his cuts tend to be long, he maybe gets 70% of the air time.

So who gets the bulk of the attention in the remaining 42% of the cuts or 30% of air time? In this video, the attention goes overwhelmingly to the conductor. First there are 7 shots of the conductor only. Then there are 17 shots of the conductor made over the backs of the musicians. The worst of these is 22 seconds from 30:17 to 30:39 when the orchestra comes in for the first time in tutti after the soloist gets things going. This is precisely when we should get 22 full seconds of the whole band---but all we see is the conductor and a sea of the backs of players. In addition to this there are a number of shots of parts of the orchestra which don't made any particular sense, but do give the TV director another way to put the conductor close to the middle of the frame. (I should also mention here that quite a few of the shots of Perlman are framed so that the conductor is also there. We get to admire a close-up of the back of his head and left of his fanny, which is not my idea of a high-value photo.) Finally, there are 6 whole-orchestra shots. But only one of these is good; the rest are too short or ruined by the perverse DVD habit of framing a decent shot and then immediately zooming in to turn it into a close-up.

So now what grade should I give this? The Perlman performance would get an "A," but the shabby treatment of the orchestra would warrant a "D." Blending these grades suggests a final "B." But I'll move that up to "B+" on account of the better sound in this piece (which may have benefited from the Advanced Dolby TrueHD).

The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

This video of Guide is similar to the Billy the Kid reviewed earlier. 41% of the cuts are easy shots of the conductor or instruments without players. The average shot lasts 3.2 seconds. There is only a single good whole orchestra shot (see 1:18:04, which lasts 6 seconds). So the Guide gets a "D" also.

Apparently there's always temptation to shoot a DVD and then try to pimp it off also as an HDVD in sexy Blu-ray dress.  I can understand why commercial publishers do this, faced as they always are with pressure to boost the bottom line. But it's discouraging to see what poor HDVD video content we are getting from the great SFS, a public charity with claims a tradition of using the latest technology and seeks, they declare, always to be among the best. The SFS has total control over its venue and sophisticated recording gear. Why can't they work out a shooting plan that would allow them to produce two videos: one for DVD and the other for HDVD?

I'm guessing the reason is pretty simple: because HDVD is so new, the SFS governing board, management, and staff have not yet grasped that DVD and HDVD are fundamentally different product lines.

Summary: The folks at SFS ought to ask themselves these questions:

  1. What are the best video content practices for HDVD recordings of symphony music?
  2. If you are going to claim any use of 96kHz/24 bit sound technology, why not go whole hog and use the best stuff from A to Z?
  3. Does a public charity have a special ethical obligation to avoid commercial "puffing" of products it sells and to be scrupulously accurate about the claims it makes for those products?
  4. If the answer to Q3 is yes, did SFS meet its obligation by stating on the package that the SFS 100 recording is "presented" in 96kHz/24 bit audio?
  5. Did the video content in this 100 Year Gala Blu-ray disc honor the players in the SFS, or does it in fact insult them?
  6. Would any viewer want to see this concert in HDVD more than once?
  7. Does SFSmedia in releasing this type of disc threaten the reputation of Michael Tilson Thomas by making him appear to be some kind of High Priest of the Cult of Celebrity or out-of-control egomaniac?
  8. If the SFS can't afford to produce both DVDs and Blu-rays as separate shows, is it time now to drop DVD and make only HDVDs following best practices for that product?

Now for a grade. The Perlman concerto is graded above as "B+." The other two works got "D." I think this indicates a C- as the overall grade for the concert. The documentary is nice, so I'll move the final grade for the title up to "C."