Tobias Melle spent three summers in the Bavarian/German Alps with his backpack, huge photographic equipment and the score of “An Alpine Symphony,” Op. 64, by Richard Strauss.
During each trip, which spanned three months at a time, Melle said he only went into the valley for gassing up, getting provisions and doing some washing. Then he ventured back into the mountains, camera in hand, waiting for the right things to come by.
The results of his journey will come to fruition at 8:15 p.m. July 30 in the Amphitheater with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in a concert titled “An Alpine Symphony in Images.”
Melle’s photographs will be projected in the Amphitheater in synchronization with the CSO’s performance.
The CSO concert will also feature John Luther Adams’ “Dream in White on White,” a piece themed on the beauty of Alaska. Rossen Milanov, principal conductor and music director of the CSO, said he thought these two pieces would flow well together because of their similar nature themes.
The CSO will play side by side with the Music School Festival Orchestra, amounting to about 150 people on stage, Milanov said.
As both a cellist and a photographer, Melle said he always had the urge to mesh his two skills together. He found a creative outlet for this desire through his “Symphony in Images” projects, which combine his photographs with symphony orchestra music.
Each symphony in images takes between three and four years to complete, said Melle, who has been working on these projects part-time for 25 years.
Melle said he has created several other “Symphony in Images” shows before to tunes such as “The Scottish” by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi. He said he always planned to do a symphony in images for “An Alpine Symphony,” but needed to wait until the technical circumstances were right.
Not wanting to create his vision through the use of running photographic slides, Melle waited until he deemed the large-scale digital projectors good enough.
“My instrument is the projector, so to say,” Melle said. “Because every single image change and blending in and blending out and every single effect on the screen is done manually live to the music.”
However, Melle said, during the concert he feels more like a musician than a photographer. Due to the differing tempos of each conductor and orchestra, Melle has to make each show a little bit different.
“I will have about 450 to 500 cues during the concert, which have to be done manually to give it the right timing depending on what the concert is because a symphony has to be played freely by the orchestra and by the conductor,” Melle said. “Otherwise, you would kill the music. I would put the ‘Alpine Symphony’ into the soundtrack corner, which is not right to do.”
The images Melle projects onto the screen must be synchronized precisely, even down to some of the flashes going along with the percussion of the orchestra.
Melle said his goal is to transport the drama of music into the imagery he captures in his photographs allowing people to understand the music better and feel it deeper.
“I would say many people just can’t listen very consciously to classical music anymore,” Melle said. “They are enjoying it, but they are not recognizing what is actually happening with the musical themes. So, I give it another dimension emotionally and in structure so it enhances the musical experience and brings it into the modern times.”
Deciding where in “An Alpine Symphony” to place his photos was easy, Melle said, because the score already denotes where the composer intended the music to illustrate sunrise or night.
However, obtaining those photos initially was not easy at all.
The selection depicts a single day in the mountains, starting at night and ending the next night, through the subjective view of a hiker.
The performance takes the audience through the beautiful terrain of the Alps, Melle said. The landscape, also a national park, boasts everything from lakes to glaciers to peaks. In one section, the hiker faces a violent thunderstorm, which Melle himself faced the storm to shoot.
“It’s not only depicting a physical hike,” Melle said. “It is also depicting the experiences on the hike, such as exhaustion and dreaming on the summit and remembering after the hike when you are down in the valley again.”
Melle said the hike the audience will observe during the concert is not a hike a person can experience in a single day. However, that impossibility reflects the ideas in the music as well.
His background as a musician and a love for the music he chooses to work with, Melle said, make his work possible.
For “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Images,” Melle said he traveled around the globe searching for joy for the fourth movement. He decided to focus on big cities, since 60 percent of all people in the world live in cities, and found his photos in places like Mexico City, Tokyo and Nairobi.
People tend not to understand these performances initially, according to Melle, because they are used to the cinema where music is played to fit the images. However, Melle’s work synchronizes the images to fit the music.
“I always say talking about a symphony in images is like talking about good eating,” Melle said. “You can’t talk properly about it. You have to experience it.”