By Laurence Vittes | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
New-release lists for major labels and the programming for concert series all around the country indicate a growing emphasis on satisfying the tastes of a much younger audience in terms of artists and repertoire. Mixing traditional classical, new, experimental, world music, and other genres with promiscuous abandon, industry drivers appear to be using this period of disruption brought on by the pandemic to reconfigure and rethink the concert and listening experience.
When the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere this summer at the Proms of Minds in Flux by American composer George Lewis, classical and opera critic Tim Ashley in The Guardian described how “the jazz and multimedia as well as classical and experimental music” explored “the spaces and resonances of the Albert Hall, as digitally enhanced orchestral sound, mastered at consoles at the back of the arena, swirls and ricochets round the auditorium.”
Apple is combining its new hardware initiatives with renewed energy and resources devoted to its classical-music division
Coincidentally, this would also serve as a perfect description of Spatial Audio, Apple’s unique new take on providing Dolby Atmos surround sound. Spatial Audio tracks the wearer’s head movement using accelerometers and gyroscopes in Apple’s AirPods Pro and AirPods Max headphones in order to position the sound accurately, even tracking the position of an iPhone or iPad so that the sound is also placed correctly relative to the screen.
Apple is combining its new hardware initiatives with renewed energy and resources devoted to its classical-music division, with an eye to capturing a millennial audience increasingly interested in classical offerings. It is a strategy that features the work of younger artists like Nicola Benedetti and Christian Li as well as well-established icons like Anne-Sophie Mutter. By offering its new Spatial Audio alongside reprocessed, older, conventional recordings, Apple Music is making classical music more accessible to a broader, more global, younger audience.
Unison Media’s Andrew Ousley underlines how the blurring of genre lines has encouraged a more open attitude toward classical music, arguing that “homework/study classical playlists have played a huge part in that, along with neoclassical composers who made their initial mark in popular TV shows, like Max Richter.”
I speak to Jonathan Gruber, Apple Music’s head of classical programming, about how seriously Apple is taking classical music, including how restoring parity between the audio impact of overheated pop recordings and underheated classical recordings is making it easier for listeners in general to switch between genres. “It’s absolutely critical,” Gruber says, “that classical recordings come through with greater dynamic range.”
As Apple expands its reach into the classical-music industry globally, I ask Gruber about the qualities and skillsets Apple would be looking for in its work force.
“The two most important things are to be absolutely perfectionistic with an attitude that there is nothing too unimportant to pay attention to,” he says. “At the same time, you have to be incredibly open-minded; you cannot be, frankly, a snob. You need to focus on quality but understand that taste is varied. You need to deliver the best, and you need to deliver it for a wide, wide audience, not only in terms of musical interests, but also geographic focus. So you have to have at once this real attention to detail and a very determined pursuit of excellence. And at the same time, you also have to be incredibly relaxed and open-minded about music. That’s a rare combination, but it can be cultivated.”
Having made many first-time connections with new classical-music listeners online myself during the pandemic, I ask Gruber if he thinks there will be a connection between Apple’s new audio experience and an uptick in listeners going to live classical concerts for the first time.
“I think Spatial Audio is giving people a taste of what going to a concert is like, which is a wonderful kind of mutually beneficial relationship between live and recorded music that we’ve never seen before. We’ve always dreamt of it, but the connection now is so clear. And isn’t being turned on by classical music in part because of the space in which it was recorded a great advertisement for actually being in the space? Of course, it raises expectations for the live sector to do an amazing job,” Gruber says. “When you can experience an artist in such intimate, pure, and close range as Spatial Audio promises, it makes sense that you will want to experience that person in a live concert as well.”
In late August, Apple added a further weapon to its classical-music arsenal with the acquisition of Primephonic, the audiophile classical-music streaming service with advanced search and browse functionality optimized for classical, and extensive contextual details on repertoire and recordings. This will set the stage for Apple Music’s launch in 2022 of a dedicated classical-music app combining Primephonic’s classical user interface with more features to be announced.