To many, a TV production consists of picking up a remote, turning on the television, and switching channels.  And to others, TV production entails pressing play and record at the same time to capture video and audio.  In reality, however, it is far more complicated than either.  This past weekend the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra recorded an extraordinary holiday television special as a gift to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In this article, I hope to share some insight into how this production was conceived and the tremendous effort that went into this momentous project.

Following our September concert at ONEOK Field,  we began considering ways to provide this community with the healing power of holiday music.  Typically the orchestra would perform accompaniment for live-audiences at this time of year, including movie accompaniments and collaborations with the Tulsa Ballet for a series of holiday Nutcracker performances.  However, this year demanded a radically innovative approach, and with only two months to spare, “A Hometown Holiday” was born.

Our first crucial step was to secure a broadcast partner.  In early October, I reached out to our media partner, Griffin Communications, to determine if they would join with the TSO on this project.  Initially, we hoped to air this on KOTV – News On 6, but after a conversation with Griffin, the Tulsa CW was determined to be the appropriate station, and they joined us in this vital effort.

Once Griffin was on board, we had to meet with the musicians to agree to move forward with this project.  The TSO had never produced a show of this scale, so we needed to achieve a consensus with the musicians on the concept.  They overwhelmingly embraced this idea.

Now that we had our key partners on board, we had to develop the program; contract a conductor, soloists, and television production crew; and, of course, locate funding support.  The TSO artistic committee approved the proposed program, soloists, and agreed to contract conductor Ron Spigelman.  Calls were placed to potential funders, and proposals were drafted.  Typically a TV show of this scope could cost over one million dollars to produce.  However, we were determined to keep the production budget under $80,000.  To achieve this goal required our staff to be extremely creative in negotiating with various vendors and underscore this project’s tremendous value to the city of Tulsa.  I am thrilled that we were successful with this goal!

The next step of assembling a television production team in less than a month was challenging.  We were able to contract Emmy award-winning television director, Bob Comiskey, whom I had worked with on the Boston Pops’ national broadcasts.  Bob has deep orchestral experience and an ability to envision, plan and execute all aspects of a show.  He determined that the program would require five cameras with operators and four robotic cameras.  Each shot needed to be painstakingly designed, with just one song potentially having over 70 planned camera shots.  No element was taken for granted, and each transition required lightning-fast changes.

Steve Colby

Lighting designer Rob Smith came to us with extensive experience with some of the world’s largest touring acts as well as television concert lighting.  He worked closely with the Tulsa Performing Arts Center team to use almost all their lights and planned and every nuance of color to reflect the mood of each musical number. Steve Colby,  the audio engineer on this project, is the same professional whose skills won rave reviews for the past two ONEOK Field concerts.  To ensure that he captured the ensemble’s authentic musicality and essence,  he mixed the sound from 94 microphones to produce a musically balanced reflection of the TSO.

Since concert halls do not typically have video recording rooms, we also needed to procure a video production truck.  These technologically advanced rolling television studios come with a plethora of cameras,  monitors and mixers, recorders, switchers, cable, and sound interfacing technology.  We contacted WYES in New Orleans about renting their truck, which is one of the best in the country,  and were informed that it was available. The truck is 53 feet long and, when opened, 34 feet wide.  It has four technologically advanced soundproof control rooms and accommodates a crew of 10 people.  Everyone from the director, assistant director, technical director, recorder, shader (makes sure the color on all cameras is correct), score reader, sound interface person, and utility crew worked together as a dynamic, well-oiled team in this mobile studio.

The truck staff, as well as five camera operators, also had to be engaged.  Since orchestra television shows are not typically done in the Tulsa area, we needed to hire skilled personnel from around the region.  The operators we contracted primarily had backgrounds in sports recording, so this presented a variety of challenges.  In athletic productions, camera operators follow the ball, puck, or bull rider.  Whereas in music, the melody must be followed, which is not visible.  To quickly train the camera operators, we first taught them to identify each of the orchestra’s instruments and then rehearsed concise timings along with the crew, as every shot was critical.

Tulsa Symphony
Tulsa Symphony

Lastly and importantly, the orchestra had only three rehearsals and two sessions for taping. They spent long hours practicing and rehearsing their parts to become a tight-knit ensemble.  Additionally,  because of the pandemic and our tight health protocols, all musicians and staff were required to take their temperature twice a day, starting 14 days before the first rehearsal. They were carefully signed-in to each rehearsal and tapings with temperature checks and a questionnaire.  They all had to wear masks and remain socially distant.  All stands and chairs were disinfected before and after each rehearsal and taping.  The orchestra performed beautifully even with these challenging restrictions.

By 9:30 pm on Monday, December 7, we had all the takes, 81 to be exact, completed.  Typically a sigh of relief happens following a concert, but producing a recording and “getting it in the can” is not the end of the process.  Over the next ten days, we will be working with our partners at Griffin Communications to meticulously edit, assemble, and ensure the show achieves the highest quality standards before the broadcast on December 19.

This undertaking set a new standard for the TSO. I am incredibly proud of the staff, musicians, board, funders, and partners who came together and worked tirelessly to develop this project.  I hope this brief “behind the scenes” look imparts a sense of the tremendous effort it takes to produce a television show. I’m sure it will provide some comfort during the holidays, and I hope you have a chance to enjoy it with your family.