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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.





Music Making across the Distance: an interview with Alan Pierson

BBC Concert Orchestra remake the W1A theme tune from lockdown

RSNO Sunday Sounds – Handel’s Prélude from Suite in A Major

BBC National Orch of Wales playing Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus

Virtual Community Choir- Health in Harmony

Lockdown Miniatures

Virtual Choir- In Times Like These

Balcony concert in Italy by Italian tenor Maurizio Marchini 1

Balcony concert in Italy by Italian tenor Maurizio Marchini 2

Yo-Yo Ma serenading health care workers

Nevis Living Room Ensemble | 500 Miles Online Orchestra

Alex Roth opens up with multi-traction orchestra video premier of ‘Emerge Entangled”

#UriPosteJukeBox 45: ‘Arietta’ by Huw Watkins

Recording classical music in lockdown-parody

Hope@Home with Daniel Hope and Christopher Israel

Yo-Yo Ma performs Bach’s complete solo cello suites live as a memorial for those we have lost and a tribute to our resilience.

Article from LA Times ‘A Pasadena couple brings calm to the neighborhood, one free porch concert at a time’ (amateur musicians)

Goldsands making music during lockdown

A wee Georgian tune for a cloudy day

Dido’s Lament by Purcell (Graeme Robertson-Brown)

And So It Goes – Stay At Home Choir with The King’s Singers

Sheppard’s Libera Nos: A Virtual Performance

#nietvergeten – voor alle ouderen en kwetsbaren in onze samenleving

Virtual choir: Lingua e Musica zingt Rachmanioff

Santa Cecilia e La grande bellezza

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain: Video calls + musical performance = time delays and awful sound, right? WRONG! 

40 Parts for 40 Days: Stile Antico sings Spem in Alium

‘Vrijheid, I Offer You Peace’ Collaboration with Limburg choir, Limburg Youth Orchestra and Youth Opera Brundibar

STEAK & KIDNEY SUPPER – Performed by Mark Templeton, David Whitehouse, and Lyndon Meredith

The Julliard School Lockdown Concert and Ballet

Jennifer Koh Music concerts on Instagram



‘We could go to the wall in 12 weeks’ – are we just going to let classical music die?

Kate Romano: We need to talk about classical music

Susan Tomes: Could classical musicians be ‘radically local’?

UK orchestras may not survive coronavirus pandemic, conductors warn

“The position of the perpetual spectator”

Guide to musicking online from ISM, real-time

Washington Post

COVID-19 and the Hidden Consequences of ‘Force Majeure’

ROCO ahead of the corona curve with an emphasis on streaming

CTV News on classical music in times of corona:

Symphonies Silenced, Sonatas Streamed: The State of Classical Music During COVID-19

NY Times article “Many of these videos have had more charm than a typical classical concert, with banter, a casual dress code and imperfect production.”

Norman Lebrecht on how corona will change our concert habits:

Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad on classical music in quarantine:

Classical music more popular as a result of corona:

De binnenbühne by De Correspondent: Podcast about the loss of the performance

In the race to go online, one orchestra stands out

The Post-Covid Concert Hall Catastrophe: Why Audience Attendance is the Least of Our Problems

Rehearsing via zoom is complicated with a tenor tuba

Music schools will soon be able to start, but how?

Sometimes it feels like vacation (Dutch)

De laatste livemuziek in crisistijd: de beiaardiers spelen door

CeeReNeM launched Listening in a Pandemic asking musicians what they are listening to duing the pandemic.

Article from Volkskrant about how orchestra are keeping their audiences active

Article by Greta Brereto titled ‘Is coronavirus pushing the music industry into a more innovative Space?’

Risk Assessment regarding Corona-Infections in Music Making

Conductors Alan Gilbert, Karina Canellakis, Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Harding discuss the impact of these unprecedented times on the world’s orchestras.

Opinion piece by Veerle Spronck ‘Do not forget Culture Audiences’

Article in Parool ‘During the Mahler Festival you can chat throughout the concert’

Classical music must be saved from the brink

Consuming Culture in the era of COVID-19

Online video lessons be like……….

Researching innovation in classical music

philharmonie zuidnederland and corona

Concertgebouw Orkest concert with social distancing among musicians

Science-based information in corona time for musicians