By Paul E. Robinson
DIGITAL – Websites, generally speaking, are de facto marketing tools. A well-constructed website offers infinite marketing opportunities, which some orchestras have only recently begun to recognize and use effectively.
Think about it. Orchestras are in the business of making music, and the best way to show potential concertgoers what they can expect is to bring that music-making to the website. In the past, many websites existed primarily to give an orchestra a presence on the internet and to offer its customers the opportunity to buy tickets online. Today, many orchestras are offering recorded concerts on their websites and a few go a step or two further, offering DVD-quality videos of complete concerts. Some orchestras even stream live concerts. Although these audio-video website features can be costly, they likely generate far more interest and excitement than masses of text and a sprinkling of static photos.
I find watching videos of live performances an infinitely more compelling experience than listening to an audio recording of the same event. In these videos, the conductor usually gets most of the close-ups and his or her gesticulations can, in themselves, not only be interesting, but also bring the listener closer to the heart of the music. It is also pleasurable to see the people who are actually making the music – what instruments they are playing, how they manage the technical challenges, and how committed they are, or are not. In one case cited below – a performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony conducted by Eduard van Beinum – it is illuminating to see how many extra players are taking part; that would be impossible to discern from an audio recording.
Below are seven of the best orchestra websites offering streaming video performances with descriptions of how they do it – quality, frequency, and cost – and some indication as to what you can expect to hear in upcoming concerts.
For some years now, the Berlin Philharmonic has been the trendsetter in the concert field, doing for orchestral concerts what the Met has been doing with its Met Live in HD series. The BPO does not offer its live-in-cinema series internationally as the Metropolitan Opera does. But its Digital Concert Hall offers full-length live or archived on-demand concerts for international distribution in the finest high definition quality available for consumption at home. Production is done from a permanent 4K/HDR video studio installed in the Philharmonie, the orchestra’s home. Concerts are broadcast live and then added to the archives for access at any time. The Digital Concert Hall offers subscriptions at US$17/month or US$169 for 12 months.
In 2018 subscribers will receive the best that the BPO has to offer from its regular concert series. Among the highlights will be a complete Parsifal, conducted by Simon Rattle (April 8), and a concert featuring Franz Schmidt’s rarely heard Symphony No. 4, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, the orchestra’s music director-designate (April 13). Guest conductors include Seiji Ozawa, Daniel Harding, Herbert Blomstedt, Zubin Mehta, and Mariss Jansons. In addition to its regular concerts, the BPO offers occasional concerts it calls “Philharmonie Late Night.” On Feb. 10, Rattle and members of the BPO transform themselves into a version of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra from the 1920s for arrangements of songs from the period.
Alone among American orchestras, the Detroit Symphony (DSO) live streams many of its concerts on its Live from Orchestra Hall free webcasts page, and a large number of past concerts are available in its DSO REPLAY archive for a $50 contribution to the DSO’s annual fund. The video and audio quality are not in the same league with the Berlin Philharmonic, but are getting better. Under music director Leonard Slatkin, the DSO’s programming includes an emphasis on American music as well as standard repertoire — Conor Brown’s How to Relax with Origami, live-streamed on Oct. 14, 2017, and is still available for viewing here.
While no European orchestra rivals the Berlin Philharmonic for its whole-hearted embrace of new technology, this venerable Dutch ensemble offers an impressive archive of videos from recent concerts all the way back to the Van Beinum era. Current music director Daniele Gatti is well represented with some superb Mahler performances, including a gripping Fifth Symphony. There is some other fine Mahler in the internet archive from Ivan Fischer (Symphony No. 4), Lorin Maazel (Symphony No. 6), and Pierre Boulez (Symphony No. 7).
Van Beinum (1901-1959), a major conductor who died far too young, led the Concertgebouw Orchestra for more than 25 years and also directed the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1956-1959. The archive includes a 1957 live performance of Beethoven’s “Eroica,” massive in both sound and concept. The size of the orchestra is remarkable. In addition to a huge string section, all the winds and brass are doubled and there are six oboes! Van Beinum conducts without a baton and scarcely glances at the score in front of him.
In short, there are many hours of great performances in the RCO video archive and they’re all free.
The Gothenburg Symphony, Sweden’s national orchestra, which has made over 100 recordings for DG and other labels, has been in the ranks of the world’s finest orchestras since the days of Neeme Järvi (GSO music director, 1982-2004). Today, Järvi holds the title of principal conductor emeritus. Gustavo Dudamel is the honorary conductor and the gifted young Finnish maestro Santtu-Matias Rouvali is music director.
The GSO offers a program called GSOplay that features videos of current performances. A free app, available on the website, offers free viewings of concerts for 30 days. A premium version offers higher quality video for about US$12 for six months; it also offers interviews and other features in addition to the concerts, and these concerts can be viewed for 90 days. Among the recent performances available is a stellar reading of the Symphony No. 12 by Shostakovich, conducted by Rouvali.
This excellent and much-recorded Norwegian orchestra can trace its roots back 250 years to 1765. Bergen, an attractive tourist destination on Norway’s west coast, with a population of only about 278,000, is perhaps best known as composer Edvard Grieg’s (1843-1907) birthplace.
The orchestra’s current music director is Edward Gardner, who recently succeeded Andrew Litton. Gardner is introducing local audiences to a lot of British music and recently presented Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. On its website, the orchestra has a feature called BergenPhilLive that includes free viewings of current and archived concerts. The video and audio quality are excellent and the performances are generally very good. Gardner conducts most of the concerts. Among the featured artists are pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, violinist Baiba Skride, and tenor Stuart Skelton.
The NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra was recently in the news at the opening of its spectacular new concert hall constructed on top of an old warehouse in Hamburg’s harbor area. The orchestra itself is a fine one and its next conductor will be Alan Gilbert (2019-20 season), formerly music director of the New York Philharmonic. The orchestra has a niche on YouTube featuring interviews with its soloists and conductors, as well as an archive of recent performances. Among the highlights: a Brahms symphony cycle conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, one of its former music directors.
The Gürzenich Orchestra Köln, Cologne’s leading orchestra, is currently led by François-Xavier Roth, an outstanding European conductor too little known in North America.
On its website, the orchestra offers HD quality live performances for streaming, free of charge. Although the number of concerts available for streaming is not large, some of them are excellent. Roth is currently working his way through a compelling Bruckner cycle, and in his concerts he regularly offers a challenging mix of old and new music.
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for theartoftheconductor.com, www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org), and www.myscena.org.