Q&A with Dr. Oriol Sans, Score Reader

We’d like to introduce the first in (what we hope will be) a series Q&A interviews with TV & video production professionals. First up is accomplished classical musician and conductor Dr. Oriol Sans, who stands at the intersection between live music production and live TV production in his duties as the Score Reader of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Joshua:  Thanks so much Oriol, for agreeing to do this interview.  First, a brief bit of background: where are you from originally, and where did you receive your training?

Oriol SansOriol:  I grew up in a small town in Catalonia, outside Barcelona, in Spain. My music training started when I was 5 years old, and lead me to become a member of the Escolania de Montserrat, the oldest boys’ choir in Europe. It was there where I started studying piano and violin, instruments that I continued playing during high school. I split my college years between the Pompeu Fabra University, where I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Humanities, and the Barcelona Conservatory, where I obtained degrees in both Choral Conducting and Orchestral Conducting. In 2006 I brought my musical studies to the University of Michigan, where I achieved my Masters of Music in 2008 and a Doctorate in Musical Arts in 2011, both in Orchestral Conducting.

Joshua:  Like many working artists and television professionals, you seem to have quite a few gigs going on simultaneously.  Can you tell us about them?

Oriol:  I am a freelance conductor, I have been invited to guest conduct orchestras across the US, Mexico and Canada. Among those, the New Mexico Philharmonic, the San Juan Symphony in Colorado, and Orquesta Filarmónica de Jalisco, in Guadalajara, Mexico. In addition to this, I worked as cover conductor for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, and the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon.

All of these engagements have to align with my production work at the DSO, where I was recently appointed as the Artistic Director of Webcasts.  One of the aspects of the job is Score Reading.

Joshua:  Describe the job of the Score Reader in a televised classical musical performance.  What exactly does a Score Reader do?

Oriol:  Usually, a Score Reader is a conductor or someone who is able to follow a musical score (some of them are very tricky to follow) who sits in the booth and calls the shots of the next instrument needed on camera. Usually, a score with all the shots marked is provided to him/her. However, at the DSO my job starts much earlier than that, since it includes deciding the shots and marking the score. Earlier in the week, I attend at least one of the rehearsals, to see how the orchestra is placed on stage, the conductor’s style –especially with guest conductors– and any other specific characteristics of the concert. That is crucial to me to plan the shots and have a good visual element of the production. It is important that all the shots are marked on the score before anybody else in the production team gets involved.

That first part of the process hasn’t changed much since I started, but what comes next has evolved since then in many ways. When I started in 2011 we had four camera operators. During the camera rehearsal and the actual performance I called the next two instruments in order, and a “GO” when it was the time for the shot change. The work of the director was to call the right camera to get that instrument before it was time for the shot. There was a lot of shouting.

In 2013 we introduced a big change that really affected the quality of the final product: shot lists. We had thought about creating a shot list before, but it wasn’t very useful since it was only used by the director. Implementing a database software, we created a system that really served our needs: once the shots were introduced in the system, the director could easily set the cameras in advance, and the same system created not only the complete shot list for the director, but specific shot lists for every camera operator with thier own shots only. The activity in the booth was much less stressful and more accurate to what the designed plan was.

Another big change that made us tweak the process once again, was the switch from four camera operators to six robotic cameras that can store 16 presets each. Now, once the shot list is prepared, we use one of the rehearsals to store the presets we need for every show. The director finalizes the shot list during this rehearsal, based on what every camera can get.

With all these changes we shifted the workload from being very heavy on the day of the performance for both the tv director and the Score Reader to a more complex preparation that allows the production to achieve much better results with less stress on the day of the performance.

Joshua:  What do you like most about being a Score Reader?

Oriol:  I enjoy many aspects of my work: the artistic piece of deciding the shots that is part of my position as the Artistic Director, and the performing part of it, linked to my role as Score Reader.

As a conductor, nobody had told me about this job before. With my work with the webcasts, I learned to look at the scores from a visual perspective: deciding which section is more interesting to see, or how a different pacing of the shots creates a very different visual concept of the music.

The performing aspect of score reading attracts me as well. During the concert, being a live production, anything can happen, and sometimes it does. Despite our preparations, we have to be equipped with the skills to do this work “on the fly,” changing or adding shots, improvising with what we have. I think that having a talented and consistent team makes it possible and enjoyable at the same time for both audiences and the production crew.

Joshua:  How did you become a Score Reader?  It doesn't exactly sound like the kind of job opening that gets posted on online where just anybody can apply...

You are absolutely right, there was no application. When the Detroit Symphony Orchestra decided to start with a regular webcast season in September 2011 Scott Harrison, the DSO Executive Director of Board Engagement and Strategy and Executive Producer of Digital Media, contacted my former Conducting Professor at the University of Michigan, Kenneth Kiesler, asking for a current or former conducting student in the area who could do it. I must be honest, when I received Scott’s call I said yes without knowing exactly what the job implied… It is a job that requires the skills of a conductor, but only the job can prepare you to do it. I am very happy that I had the opportunity and I took on the challenge.

Joshua:  As someone who found their way into the TV business from the classical music world, give us your thoughts on the process of producing live television. 

Oriol:  I think it is great the Classical Music world is incorporating more visual elements like these live webcasts, which have a worldwide impact. Our society values the visual aspect more every day and Classical music cannot stay out of it. People don’t only want to listen to an orchestra; they want to see the sweat of the soloist dripping down his or her face.

At the same time, these visual elements have to be in concordance with the music. One of the dilemmas I always have while preparing the shots or even in the booth is the pacing of the shots. If you check any televised production of Classical Music of the 80s and 90s you will notice that the shots are longer than we are used to now. I guess that’s the result of the influence of sports and movies, and in these live webcasts we try to incorporate this modern visual taste, always keeping in mind the resources we have (the number of cameras) and that it can’t be too distracting from the music. A couple of resources that help us on that direction are the pans and zooms, which allow us to have longer shots and at the same time movement for the viewer. We can’t forget though, that the goal is to showcase the music at any given time.

Joshua:  Thanks for your time, Oriol!

Link to a NY Times article about the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's streaming efforts here.