For Modest Coin, Detroit SO ‘Replay’ Opens A Treasury

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The Detroit Symphony's instant replay
The Detroit Symphony’s live webcasts have been turned into a robust catalogue for replay by anyone who contributes $50.
By Paul E. Robinson 

DIGITAL REVIEW — For several years now, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has been streaming many of its main series concerts via its website (www.dso.org), enabling people both in the Detroit area and around the world to see and hear its concerts on their computers. For free!

The DSO's instant replay service features many living composers.
The DSO’s instant replay service features works by many living composers.

In a major expansion of this service, the DSO is now also making available many performances from past seasons. Access to the “new” back catalog, DSO Replay, is not entirely free, but it might well become a useful fundraising tool for the orchestra: a $50 donation to the DSO allows music lovers to watch and listen to over 100 videos.

Most people likely are aware that the city of Detroit fell on hard times several decades ago as its manufacturing jobs — particularly in the auto industry — began to disappear. Declining audiences pushed the Detroit Symphony into a period of financial turmoil. With existential social and economic problems, the city of Detroit could ill afford to worry about its symphony orchestra. Detroit has now turned the corner, and the orchestra also has returned to stability by trimming its budget and creating effective outreach programs. More than that, it seems the people of Detroit have come to appreciate their orchestra as one of those basic resources that holds a proud city together.

Leonard Slatkin, trying new things in Detroit, is on instant replay.
Leonard Slatkin, trying new things in Detroit, stars on DSO Replay.

While the Detroit Symphony has not generally been referred to as one of the “Big Five orchestras” in the United States, it has a distinguished history. It was founded in 1887, and among its internationally respected music directors have been Paul Paray (1951-62), Antal Doráti (1977-81), Neeme Järvi (1991-2005), and the present incumbent, Leonard Slatkin (2008-). Recordings by these conductors with the DSO have been highly praised over the years. Interestingly, many of the Paray recordings are legendary for both performance and sound and are now being reissued on vinyl by Decca.

Under Slatkin, the DSO has led almost every other American orchestra in championing American composers. In DSO Replay, you will find such treasures as the Violin Concerto by Mason Bates, featuring Anne Akiko Meyers; Barber’s Violin Concerto with Sarah Chang; William Bolcom’s Circus Overture, written for Slatkin’s 70th birthday; Augusta Read Thomas’ Cello Concerto No. 3 with Lynn Harrell, and André Previn’s Double Concerto with violinist Jaime Laredo and cellist Sharon Robinson.

Replay also includes all the numbered symphonies and more from an early-2015 recent DSO Tchaikovsky Festival in superb performances, conducted from memory by Slatkin, as well as an excellent semi-staged performance of Tosca, again with Slatkin on the podium.

Replay ready - Stenhammar via Neeme Järvi, Per Tengstrand.
Replay ready – Stenhammar’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Neeme Järvi, Per Tengstrand.

My favorite concert from the Replay collection may be the return of music director emeritus Järvi conducting the Detroit premiere of Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Introduced and played with total mastery by Per Tengstrand, this is a magnificent piece. Also on the program are Brahms’ Tragic Overture and Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. Interestingly, the Stenhammar opens, as does the Brahms, with two fanfare-like “call to attention” chords. At the end of the concert, Järvi gave the audience a couple of encores, as he nearly always did during his tenure as music director in Detroit, presenting these extras with extraordinary charm and good humor. Järvi was a great music director and is understandably beloved in Detroit.

Technically, the DSO video presentations are a mixed bag. The sound quality is excellent, thanks to both the engineers and the fine acoustics of Orchestra Hall. The camera work, which can be sampled at YouTube.com, is no more than serviceable and occasionally less than that; for example, while the organ is prominent in the opening of Also sprach Zarathustra, neither organ nor organist are ever seen in the streaming of the Järvi performance. In general, the visual dimension lacks imagination.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall presentations, on the other hand, are state-of-the-art. The producers of these concerts make the visual elements as exciting and dynamic as the music. Quite possibly, in terms of visual presentation at least, money makes the difference; while the DSO concerts are streamed free or close to it in DSO Replay, a subscription to the Digital Concert Hall is $166 per year.

In streaming the DSO Replay concerts at home, I must confess that I did experience some stuttering and other technical glitches, but that may have more to do with the inadequacies of Windows 10 than anything else. The concerts played just fine on my wife’s Mac.

'Passionate Piano' is one of the many sortable categories in DSO Replay.
‘Passionate Piano’ is one of the many sortable categories. Program notes would be nice.

With respect to presentation, I would like to see notes added for each performance; a short spoken or written intro to what the listener is about to see and hear would add a good deal to the experience. It should not be difficult to reproduce DSO program notes from live concerts for Replay. I would also suggest that the listener be provided an opportunity to watch entire concerts as well as individual pieces.

That said, and while there is room for improvement, DSO Replay is a valuable resource for anyone interested in classical music generally and orchestras in particular. Although other U.S. orchestras stream concerts from time to time, the Detroit Symphony is clearly a leader in the use of this technology to keep and build audiences for classical music. To explore the catalog, visit www.dso.org/replay.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.