David McCue, a board member of Chorus pro Musica and a lifelong choral singer and music enthusiast, had become preoccupied with a discomfiting observation.
“Classical music concerts seem to be stuck in the 19th century,” McCue said during a recent interview. “People dress the same way they did in 1890, and they expect, broadly, the same sort of behavior from the audience. I have lots of friends who love music but don’t like classical music because they think the concerts are stodgy. They’re boring.”
When it came time to plan Chorus pro Musica’s Saturday performance of Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation,” McCue wanted to see whether he could update the concertgoing experience. He wanted “a choral concert that you could emerge from and say absolutely anything other than ‘boring,’ ” he said with a laugh.
In particular, he wanted to give the concert a visual dimension in order to heighten the storytelling aspect of the piece. So he and Betsy Burleigh, music director of Chorus pro Musica, thought about the idea of projecting images — mostly paintings — on a screen behind the musicians in Jordan Hall. But that seemed too static and confining.
McCue happened to mention the idea to his nephew, Joss Sessions, who had recently graduated from the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts with a specialization in creating video art for performance. “I had a look at [a picture of] Jordan Hall and straightaway I decided, if I was going to design it, I’d get rid of the screen and project video onto those amazing pipes at the back of the hall,” said Sessions from his studio in Leeds.
Encouraged, McCue asked him to create some designs to accompany “The Creation.” One of the designs submitted was for the section “And God created great whales.” “It’s basically a line drawing — an outline of two whales swimming,” Sessions explained. “And the way I designed it so that it looks like the whales swim in from the sides and then into the pipes.”
“I was entranced,” said McCue. “I rushed down to Betsy and I said, ‘You’ve got to see this. This is going to blow your doors off.’ ” The board was similarly enthusiastic, and Sessions was appointed to design video accompaniment for the entire two-hour performance.
It’s new territory for the chorus, of course, but in some ways it’s also new territory for Sessions. His musical tastes run to dubstep artists like Skrillex, and he recently toured with a jazz group, the John Aram Quintet, but he never listened seriously to classical music before this project.
“Betsy liked that, because this project is trying to bring a different crowd to the piece,” Sessions said. “I’m hearing things that these musicians who have heard it over and over again and studied it — they’re taking it for granted that it’s there. And I’m asking, why is it there? And [I’m] using the skills that I have to put it into video form.”
Sessions’s “Creation” designs range from abstract to representational. A riot of colors accompanies the choral exclamation “And there was light.” For the section about Eden, “I went out and filmed my mum’s flowers in the back garden for a day, and then layered them up on top of each other in different colors.”
All of it was challenging and time-consuming to create. Ever since he was offered the project in October, he’s been devoting himself completely, almost obsessively, to it. “I’ll get up about 9 in the morning,” he said. “Luckily, my studio is in my house so it’s not a long commute. And I’ll work straight through until 5 o’clock in the morning. And I’ve been doing that the whole eight months.”
Sessions emphasized that his contribution is as much live performance as the musical part. He’ll create a series of video segments for each section of the piece with a rough plan of what goes where. But because the duration of a concert performance is impossible to predict exactly, Sessions can extend or shorten each section as needed. And, he added, “if I feel that the audience are really responding well to something, I can add a bit more of it. Or if they’re not liking it, I can swap it out and change very slight things.”
“The effect, if we pull it off, is this combination of very contemporary visual against a contemporary-to-the-music architecture,” said McCue. “It’s like Haydn architecture with a contemporary appearance.”
“I always try to separate myself and think if I was going to this, what would I want to see?” Sessions said. “Some people will absolutely love it, some people will absolutely despise it and think it’s the worst thing ever done. And that’s what I kind of like. They’ll come away and discuss it, and if they’re discussing it, that’s the best thing, because it certainly calls for something.”
Remarkably, Sessions isn’t being paid for his work on “The Creation.” He sees it as a way to gain experience and build his portfolio. “It’s like creating an album. You put the time in, and it’s there,” he said. And if another orchestra wants to use his designs for a performance of the piece, “I can pick up my hard drive, and off I trot to the performance.”