April 22, 2020
The concert hall provides so many things that, to the initiated at least, hide in plain sight. A theatrical, architectural, and spatial focus on the stage and on the musical experience is one; a social environment is another, whether it is in the bars at the interval or in people-watching from your seat. The concert event is also a reason to leave the house, to travel to a specific location, to make a journey, whether as a solemn pilgrimage or boozy night out.
All this, of course, has changed. For how long, we do not know. What was implicit in the concert hall is revealed to some extent when tuning in to concerts from the home. There are choices to be made: where to listen, how to listen, with whom to listen. Is this to be consumed privately on a laptop in a corner of the house or is it the main event on the living room TV? Is there an adequately comfortable chair? (Also no small issue in the concert hall incidentally.) Do we have enough wine?
We flick between Esther Swift, harpist and singer, and the Quarantine Soirée of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Already this is a novelty. While standing up and leaving is always an option in a live concert, however frowned upon, any digital offering will be in competition with thousands of other streams, talking heads and entertainments. We chat during the pieces – should we switch over? – and move more demonstrably in these less formal surroundings.
Ivan Fischer’s prerecorded introduction welcomes us to the Soirée. He sits by the piano, speaking softly. One of his grey hairs has fallen and attached itself to his jumper. The scene cuts to some musicians in what looks like a large rehearsal hall. They shuffle on and assume their positions, turn their pages. There is one camera view, more or less centred. Different ensembles come and go, playing fairly light chamber music repertoire with acceptable audio quality. At the end of each piece they bow to the silent audience.
Swift’s concert is a rather more homely affair. From her cosy living room, she can easily segue from speaking directly to the camera to playing her folk-inflected songs. There is a feeling of intimacy in this, one that would have been ruined if 50 people were to try and break down her door. The camera reveals a view and atmosphere that is otherwise impossible to produce.
Unfortunately, the connection is variable at various points, leading to breaks in the music. The effect of this on the aesthetic experience cannot be overstated. Liveness requires a continuity of perception, even if spontaneity, mistakes and some rough edges are also its by-products.
What these tentative first steps in online musicking reveal is that there is potential for new experiences but that digital must be engaged with on its own terms: best practice does not see it as an opportunity to reproduce what was done before. The first question must be: what can digital offer that the regular concert experience cannot?
The answer to this is not a one-camera recorded concert for an orchestra’s usual audience, however much we want to keep them engaged. If an orchestra offers a performance of a Beethoven Symphony, there is little that such a recording would offer me that any number of YouTube videos cannot, especially as I have recently taken up the Berlin Philharmonic on a free trial of their Digital Concert Hall. This is not only a question of entrenched orchestral hierarchy: if the Berlin Phil themselves decided to perform the piece live, it would be rendered rather redundant by their own platform.
Why won’t a concert do? How things look, and, perhaps more importantly, how warm and engaging people are is vitally important. Presentation is part of the aesthetic experience. Television should not be emulated unthinkingly here but it can be learned from: awkward shuffling and mumbling is not usually tolerated, the British Prime Minister notwithstanding.
There must be something in the experience that engages with the multiple perspectives and temporalities that digital content can offer. Is this an opportunity to get inside the orchestra like never before? To see it work from different angles simultaneously? To hear the inner thoughts of its players?
At a recent meeting, Stefan Rosu (intendant philharmonie zuidnederland) said that the most readily-engaged classical music videos are masterclasses. If flawless performance is not to be the ultimate goal of orchestral digital presentations, then learning about the artform and its personnel may be a useful substitute. This would of course be of interest to regular concert goers in the South Netherlands, but it should also offer something to the internet at large. The digital audience is, after all, distributed in a manner quite unlike a place-based arts institution.
The challenges of these times and this medium are by no means small, indeed television itself has only sporadically managed to do justice to classical music content. Thankfully, no one is expected to achieve great things alone. It is through new creative partnerships with video and audio professionals, programmers and web designers that progress can be made. Nor is it simply about technological and musical quality: the best microphones picking up the finest players in the world would certainly be a pleasure but would not advance these issues in a meaningful fashion. Engaging with what the medium has to offer might just be the start of moving in the right direction.