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I saw the Peking Acrobats on stage a couple of weeks ago. Words like “spectacular” and “astounding” don’t come close to conveying their off-the-charts out-of-the-park abilities and flawless artistry, and the same goes for the band (I stole a glance at their charts in the intermission and the notation was utterly incomprehensible to me – I would love to know how it works…). This is a group that needs no help with wowing the audience in every way, and yet they still had something that our far more pedestrian western music recitals don’t have.

Lighting.

Lighting creates atmosphere. Every play, every musical, every opera, every movie, every dramatic production has a lighting designer, who greatly enhances the effect of the show with artful lighting effects. We are seldom aware as we watch the show how much good lighting contributes to a production (perhaps the best way to appreciate it is to watch old movies and TV shows with bad lighting – glaring light on the subjects, sharp shadows – indoors).

Musical theater and opera make use of it. More’s the pity that instrumental recitals don’t.

Since lighting is highly effective at creating atmosphere and enhancing the experience for the audience, you wonder why not, except that we are victims of tradition – it rarely occurs to us to do anything in our art differently, even though there are many many ways we could improve it for both performers and audience. Every other field constantly looks for ways to improve and be more effective and efficient. Classical music studies, not so much.

But the idea of the power of lighting makes you think. Right now we have the same lighting for every piece in a recital. But why should Mozart be lit the same as Strauss. It’s fun to imagine what kind of lighting would be best for other kinds of pieces, say something like Mark Schultz’s “Dragons in the Sky”, Doug Hill’s Jazz Soliloquys, or Buyanovsky’s “España.” Imagine starting Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in dim, violet-hued light, and then transforming suddenly to brilliant reds and yellows when the Allegro starts, perhaps throttling back to more blue in the middle lyrical section. I could imagine my own “September Elegy” beginning in near blackness and slowing getting lighter. I know very little about the art of lighting, but even an amateur imagination-lighter like me can come up with ideas. Imagine what a trained lighting designer could do for performances.

We have lighting designers at the university. They work only for the dance and theater departments. Maybe it’s time to try to cajole them into changing our world over at the music building. The only lighting changes that we’ve done so far is when the last piece of the concert of my improv class did the whole piece in the dark.

Memorable, that one.

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