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The show goes on, with both live musicians and computers

by Amy Kingsley

Inside War Memorial Auditorium, two lights project the sponsors’ names of the Greensboro Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker: Notion Music Composition and Performance Software and WFMY News. Parked on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the recital hall a Notion-emblazoned Mini Cooper sits for patrons to admire.

The music software, a product of Greensboro-based VirtuosoWorks, has its fingerprints all over the traditional holiday show, including the presentation of the iconic Tchaikovsky score. A 12-member chamber orchestra accompanied by Notion Music software is accompanying the dancing company for all performances. The orchestra conductor is also the software developer, Jack Jarrett.

Notion is software that allows composers to enter music in notation form into a computer, which then plays it back with sampled instruments. In this case, the samples come from the London Symphony Orchestra, widely considered to be among the best musical ensembles in the world. The software can also be used to play back a prewritten score like The Nutcracker solo or alongside live musicians.

‘“A lot of theater companies with small budgets just play back a score on a CD,’” says company spokesman Brian McConnon. ‘“Where this kind of steps in is that you can add live musicians back into the mix.’”

Although the company touts its product as an avenue for bringing world-class music to cash-strapped arts organizations, the maneuver is not without controversy, especially in professional music circles.

‘“Of course it’s in bad taste,’” says Bennie Jones, the secretary of American Federation of Musicians local 342 in Charlotte. ‘“It’s kind of cheating the public in the kind of music they hear.’”

Anytime a company uses recorded music to substitute for live musicians, it compromises the careers of classical players, Jones says. But no major arts organization, including the Greensboro Symphony, has a contract with the union, which covers Guilford County.

McConnon says the technology provides opportunities for musicians by providing a range of options for arts organizations between the extremes of full orchestra or total playback. Among the key selling points for the product is its flexibility, he says.

The Greensboro Ballet is one example of an arts organization that has used the technology to increase the number of professional musicians on the payroll. Before this year’s performance, the organization relied upon CD playback and ‘— in fatter days ‘— the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra. Given their lean financial resources, Notion proved to be a good compromise.

‘“I run a company of professional dancers,’” says Artistic Director Maryhelen Mayfield. ‘“And to be honest, before I spend significant money on musicians, I spend money on dancers.’”

A key technological component that allows the software to interact with live musicians is something called Ntempo, which enables the playback to follow a conductor. Along with the 12 instrumentalists, one member of the ensemble is dedicated to playing the sampler ‘— Benjamin Singer. He can manipulate the samples to play back at the same tempo as the rest of the orchestra.

Software developer and conductor Jack Jarrett hails from a long musical background, according to a company bio. Major orchestras including the London Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops have performed the compositions of the composer, who is originally from Asheville. His company, VituosoWorks, is headquartered on South Elm Street.

The two companies hooked up through a shared employee, Gil Fray, who works as the Music Director for the Greensboro Ballet and a composer for Notion. The Greensboro Ballet only had enough money to purchase the program, the musicians were provided by VirtuosoWorks.

The performance itself takes place on the other side of the tracks, in the Greensboro Coliseum. Families and schoolmates of those performing in the show as well as several devoted fans braved the inclement weather to attend the show.

Despite the evolutionary technology in the music, the dance itself is pure tradition ‘— the classical ballet rendition of a centuries-old story. It is the tale of Clara, a young girl who receives a beautiful nutcracker as a gift from her favorite uncle. A combination of sibling rivalry and unquenchable curiosity lead the protagonist into a fantasyland of giant cupcakes and svelte dancers.

The money on the dancers is well spent; their acrobatic fireworks impress the young first-timer sitting to my left. On my right, however, two older patrons complain about the quality of the music. The program’s shortcomings mostly emerge during the crescendos, when recorded percussion falls short of its corporeal counterpart. During the string-heavy portions, its possible to imagine yourself in the company of a full, live orchestra.

‘“We would love to have a full orchestra, but this is an improvement over recorded music,’” Mayfield says. ‘“Having live people in the pit just adds a level of energy you don’t get with a CD.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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