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.