Classical music concerts and opera on public television were once staples of the classical music industry. And they still are: Free public television remains a major point of contact between the classical music world and its audience. And in the case of PBS’ three East Coast flagship stations, that means production in addition to distribution, and supporting classical music in the community. But changes are afoot, and web-based platforms and streaming services are now offering classical music consumers new ways to engage with and enjoy their favorite artists and ensembles. Hurried along by the pandemic, these new means of connection give musicians and institutions more opportunities than ever before to bring the music to audiences outside the concert hall.
WETA-TV, which went on the air in the nation’s capital in 1961, broadcasts content from PBS and other sources as well as programs it produces, such as A Celebration of Peace Through Music with Sir Gilbert Levine, the Washington National Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus, and the iconic A Capitol Fourth concerts from the U.S. Capitol lawn featuring the National Symphony Orchestra.
Since 1955, WGBH-TV in Boston has produced more than 75 virtual streams and broadcasts for local organizations like the Handel and Haydn Society, Boston Baroque, the Boston Early Music Festival, JazzBoston, and the Terezín Music Foundation, as well as for soloists like Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Gil Shaham, and Jennifer Koh.
WNET went on the air in New York in 1948 and now produces the prestigious “Great Performances” series, most recently Vienna: The New Year’s Celebration 2022, Vienna Summer Night Concert 2021, Verdi’s Requiem: The Met Remembers 9/11, A John Williams Premiere at Tanglewood, and San Francisco Symphony Reopening Night. Due in March 2022: The Conductor, exploring the career of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop. WNET also produces Now Hear This, a “Great Performances” documentary mini-series that merges music, storytelling, travel, and culture. It premiered in 2019 and a third season is coming in 2022.
Orchestras are also gearing up for TV. The Minnesota Orchestra’s broadcast lineup for 2022 will include six concerts live on Twin Cities PBS, the orchestra’s own site, and social media. The performances will also be available as live radio broadcasts on YourClassical from Minnesota Public Radio.
The Cleveland Orchestra collaborates from time to time with PBS on broadcasts, as with their 2018 MLK concert, which was broadcast nationally. The local PBS affiliate WVIZ frequently airs excerpts from the CO’s digital concerts and regularly broadcasts select concerts in full, including the annual Star-Spangled Spectacular.
A significant shift may be the introduction of the CO’s new streaming app, Adella (named after the orchestra’s founder Adella Prentiss Hughes), which connects to performances “anytime, anywhere” on the following terms: Free content offers “intriguing samplings of the orchestra’s artistry and history” while a premium monthly membership brings access “to everything that Adella has to offer.”
In 2020, the Dallas Symphony upgraded its equipment and expertise in order to create high-quality video for its own Next Stage platform, then developed relationships with Bloomberg TV and Toyota to sponsor three concerts: a pops program with jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, Mozart’s Requiem to honor those lost to COVID, and a Holly Jolly Celebration in December. The entrepreneurial DSO also produced the television program One Symphony, Two Orchestras, featuring musicians from the symphony and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Distributed by American Public Television, it aired in the fall and in January began running on PBS. The DSO’s president and CEO Kim Noltemy tells me, “It’s been exciting to be able to take charge of our destiny a little more.”
Noltemy says that having partners like Bloomberg and Deutsche Grammophon’s DG Stage video service, for which the DSO produced a Mozart concert in January 2021 with Hélène Grimaud, brings a different audience watching online. “It has also completely inspired our local donor community to increase their giving,” she adds. “Foundations have been supporting activities, and Toyota joined us as a brand-new sponsor. We’re obviously getting corporate visibility. It’s been really helpful in so many ways.”
Classical-music content is being produced on a host of other sites and platforms. One of the newest is Carnegie Hall+, a premium subscription channel curated by Carnegie Hall’s programming team, featuring new and historic content from the Unitel catalog “in 4K UHD and Dolby Atmos on select programs.” In its initial launch phase, Carnegie Hall+ will be available in the United States and in about 60 territories internationally as a premium channel on Apple TV—the only performing-arts channel on Apple’s platform. And while the core focus of Carnegie Hall+ at launch is classical music, programming will be expanded over time to embrace other genres and to reflect the schedule of Carnegie Hall itself.
Web-based platforms are open to the world, but the U.S. still manages to represent a large chunk of the classical-music consumer market. Managing director Hervé Boissière of Paris-based medici.tv, which makes fair claim to being the world’s leading classical music channel by livestreaming more than 150 events every year including operas, concerts, festivals like Verbier, and competitions like the Cliburn, tells me that the U.S. is still its number one market, accounting for about 25 percent of its subscribers. The service went on Roku in January and has invested heavily in quality, with four production teams in Europe and two in the U.S. “We never film without one or two guys with the score who have prepared everything,” Boissière says.
“These next horizons are a win-win for all in that they are flexible, forward-looking creative platforms with positive financial levers.”
I ask consultant Eric Latzky, former communications head of the New York Philharmonic, how he sees classical music programming on the local and national PBS stations interacting with streaming material either from the orchestras and venues or platforms like medici.tv. He says that these “new innovative digital platforms and the more formal or traditional big production approaches exist in the same universe, but the new, streamlined model is already having a transformative effect on programming choices. The economics, concepts of potential risk, audience size, and more, will be viewed differently because the new platforms are ripe for musical adventure, from many diverse perspectives, and orchestras are eager for that freedom to explore.”
Latzky believes that new digital structures created out of necessity during the pandemic and now being honed and elevated in the early post-Covid era, offer “new musical and content pathways, and, importantly, new potential business models and income streams. These next horizons are a win-win for all in that they are flexible, forward-looking creative platforms with positive financial levers.”
New World Symphony president and CEO Howard Herring offers some context. He says that the electronic transmission of music over radio beginning in 1920 created “a new reality in which people no longer went looking for music in resonant spaces, in person, and with their communities.” Since then, Herring says, “musical performances have gone looking for the audience—and now they’ve found it through technology that invites audience interaction, exponentially expands access, turns musicians into music producers and distributors, gives composers significant new presence, and redefines expectations for start times and durations of performances.”
Taken together, the multiplicity of streams has opened up what WCRB station manager Anthony Rudel calls, “a new art form that brilliantly and seamlessly brings audiences closer to musicians with enhanced virtual and in-person music experiences. The response to these streams has been tremendous and we’ll be presenting music in this innovative manner long after the pandemic subsides.”