Can the Web save classical music?

A conference in Seattle provides some intriguing examples for the digital age, but it also stirs skepticism.
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Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony Orchestra

A conference in Seattle provides some intriguing examples for the digital age, but it also stirs skepticism.

A couple of weeks back the Seattle Symphony organized a conference in Benaroya Hall'ꀙs Founders'ꀙ Room, "Bach to Byte: Performing Arts in the Digital Age." The gathering examined how classical music and other performing arts can use the web and other digital avenues to communicate with and access their publics. It brought together major speakers from Microsoft, Google, and RealNetworks with well-known local arts leaders from the Symphony, Ballet, and Opera, and a prestigious visitor from Berlin.

It was a lively and topical affair, revealing fascinating differences of perspective between the apostles of the web as a revolutionary source of social interaction and those with responsibility for leading large and complex performing arts bodies. There was a gap between Facebook and YouTube enthusiasts (apt to see the web and only the web as the future) and those with actual experience of the hard business of financing, promoting, managing, and delivering large and complex performing arts programs year after year. Even in Digital Seattle, there was a fair amount of skepticism about the new media.

The gap was to some degree bridged by Pamela Rosenberg, the Chief Executive of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and a major catch for Jennifer McCausland, an arts manager who organized the event. In her keynote speech Rosenberg, previously director of the San Francisco Opera, explained how her orchestra had set up its 'ꀜDigital Concert Hall.'ꀝ This enables subscribers the world over to access the Berlin Philharmonic'ꀙs regular Berlin concerts streamed through a very high quality audio-visual web link. The Berliners give two or three different concert programs a month over a nine month concert season. For a fee of about $180 a year subscribers can hear and see each of these as it happens, and can play each concert again whenever and as many times as they like. Hence the initiative'ꀙs title: 'ꀜAny Place, Any Time.'ꀝ

Rosenberg emphasized that the idea originated with a cellist in the Orchestra'ꀙs Media Committee. It was not a management initiative. They made an early decision to go for the very highest levels of audio-visual quality and presentation, consistent with the Berlin Orchestra'ꀙs outstanding and carefully nurtured musical standards. This took long legal and technical planning and a large up-front financial investment made possible by a five-year grant from Deutsche Bank. Orchestra members had been flexible about the contractual and payment aspects, but the project would need 7,000 paying subscribers per concert before it would break even. Since going live in January, it has signed up only about 1,600. Break-even is at least three years away.

Rosenberg's talk was the more impressive for its unassertive, even modest and questioning, delivery. But it is clear that the Berlin Orchestra starts with some massive advantages. It is certainly the most prestigious orchestra in Europe, and perhaps the world; through its tours and recordings it is an internationally established brand name. It has a large subsidy from the City of Berlin and regularly sells out its concerts. And as a self-governing body, it is less prone to 'ꀜthem and us'ꀝ internal feuding and contractual disputes.

Intrigued, I have now subscribed to the Berlin Digital Concert Hall project. It fully meets the standards Rosenberg described — excellent performances of a repertoire combining the classics with enterprising choices of new and unfamiliar works. (One of the latter is Schumann'ꀙs rarely performed 'ꀜParadise and the Peri'ꀝ which Gerard Schwarz and the SSO gave some years ago in Seattle). The audio-visual quality is stunning.

However the Berlin Digital Concert Hall turns out financially, it is plain that regional arts organizations could not replicate it and could not raise the large upfront costs. For them, the issue is how to use new web opportunities to access and hopefully widen their public.

Contributors from Microsoft, Google, and RealNetworks spoke with passion of the opportunities of the new digital age. They pointed to new role of the networking sites — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. — in the social, cultural, and economic lives of the younger generation especially. They held up the recent YouTube symphony orchestra concert, streamed from the Carnegie Hall, as showing the possibilities. With an orchestra put together from international volunteers who auditioned by video on YouTube and whose travel costs were supported by Google, the accent was on youth and diversity. The resulting concert, with something for everyone and charmingly hosted and skillfully conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, has attracted over a million web hits, leading to the claim that no classical music event has ever been seen by more people.

In response, Gerard Schwarz, Speight Jenkins, and the Ballet's David Brown, after describing the significant use that their organizations already make of the web, questioned whether the YouTube symphony and, for example the Met'ꀙs live HD opera broadcasts to movie theaters, would actually increase the audience willing and able to pay for their local performing arts. Jenkins observed that the Met'ꀙs opera telecasts were largely attended by existing opera-goers, including some who can no longer afford live opera tickets. Schwarz questioned whether the YouTube symphony, a pick-up group with a couple of days'ꀙ playing together, could reach really high standards. In Seattle the Opera, Symphony, and Ballet had successfully maintained and expanded their regular audiences but it was not a quick or easy business. And it needs a wider, inclusive cultural approach covering age groups not necessarily linked into the Facebook and YouTube worlds.

It was endearing that the occasion had some old-fashioned aspects. Rosenberg spoke from manuscript notes (remember those?) with no PowerPoint presentation, and the amplification system had some wobbly moments. But the conference raised vitally important questions for the future of the performing arts. It could hardly be expected to resolve them, but as I left thought of Napoleon'ꀙs comment when asked the secret of his military victories — 'ꀜOn s'ꀙengage et puis on voit'ꀝ ('ꀜMake a commitment and see where it leads you'ꀝ). They seem to have learned the secret in Berlin.


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