By Laurence Vittes | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine
While orchestras of all sizes are framing their return to live performances before live audiences this fall as a rebirth, it appears that in many aspects technology will be very much in the mix. As James Roe, president and executive director of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York, puts it, “The audience of the future will want both live and digital experiences and will expect arts organizations to speak fluently in both live and digital languages.”
This message seems to have been absorbed by the orchestral world at large, and as a result, most orchestras are incorporating what they’ve learned about technology during the pandemic into their ongoing planning. It is also why many, including the Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Minnesota orchestras, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, have been purchasing the cameras and other technical equipment needed to stream concerts to audiophile standards. They are also recognizing the importance of sound and image quality and the impact it can have when combined with artistic direction, and how a great producer and team can become distinctive assets.
“The past 18 months have been a crash course for the whole field in how to incorporate broadcast and streaming technology into our work,” observes John Zion, co-founder of the Ourconcerts.live streaming service and platform. “Classical music has typically lagged behind other genres in this area, but it’s been remarkable to see how quickly and effectively organizations have pivoted during this period.”
Roe says that “as tough as the last 16 months have been, our organization is stronger today than it was in March of 2020. The challenges we faced together increased our trust in one another, vastly expanded our skill sets, and opened myriad ways of looking at our business and mission. We created more original programming during the lockdown than at any other time in our history, and technological innovations of this period will change how we interact with our audiences in the future.
“That being said,” he adds, “streaming concerts did not emerge as a new, self-sustaining business line. Our future digital strategy is to add a new dimension of engagement beyond the concert hall, by continuing to create content conceived for the internet. We believe the medium is the message; the proscenium arch and the smartphone call for different artistic expression.”
Our future digital strategy is to add a new dimension of engagement beyond the concert hall, by continuing to create content conceived for the internet.—James Roe, president and executive director of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s
There have been other important practical lessons learned from adapting to COVID restrictions that will be useful when the orchestras go live. Music director Giancarlo Guerrero, whose Nashville Symphony will open with chamber-orchestra performances in the fall, tells me that for the past year he had been lucky enough to work with several orchestras in Europe, and has become an expert in social-distancing requirements.
“Working with smaller orchestras allows for a unique intimacy that would normally be harder to achieve with our full Nashville Symphony. The smaller ensembles allow more possibility of interaction, more of a chamber-ensemble atmosphere, giving us the chance to connect in a very gratifying way,” he says. Guerrero is of course looking forward to having all of the musicians back onstage by the end of the season but in the meantime, “the reduced orchestra size this fall will allow us to dive into repertoire that we never performed before.”
Audiences are likely just beginning to see the benefits of technology to the deeply wounded industry. Krishna Thiagarajan, president and CEO of the Seattle Symphony, doesn’t know that anyone in the United States performing-arts community was set up “in any way to survive the pandemic because the challenge was so disruptive and so unusual that even during World War II we saw nothing of this magnitude affecting the performing arts.”
Thiagarajan cites three essential components to rebirth and recovery: “the understanding and the support of the orchestra unions and, in our case, our own orchestra committee; the funding for hard equipment and expertise in the form of professional digital directors, managers, and production teams; and—most important—how America is hooked up with the data information highway.”
“There are families who still don’t have the kind of internet access that everybody should have,” Thiagarajan says, “who still don’t have the kind of access to devices you need in order to connect with us. There are schools struggling with access, bandwidth, and devices for all of their children. And you want to make sure the sound is really good. You want to make sure that the video is clear. So those are bandwidth issues that very quickly can overwhelm very basic online packages.”
Thiagarajan thinks this sounds like a job for infrastructure. “It’s the same issue that we have with our old-fashioned analog infrastructure of roads versus public transportation versus high-speed trains versus airports. It will take a giant push by the entire nation.”
Violinist Colin Jacobsen, co-founder with his cellist-conductor brother Eric of chamber ensemble the Knights, concurs that everyone has gone together through “a collective trauma that has hit different individuals, communities, and institutions in vastly different ways. For the Knights, our pivot to digital offerings was about several things, including continuing to engage and grow our community and the desire of the musicians to do what we could creatively within the limitations we were experiencing—and get paid for that work!—and driving people to the irreplaceable live concert experience that just came back to life for us last week at the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts in Central Park.”
Jacobsen emphasizes, as so many others do, that quality will be “an important determining factor of whether a sizable viewership outside an organization’s devoted inner circle finds and regularly watches these streams.” Of course, he says, not everyone has the resources of large and well-funded organizations, “but people have learned that you can do quite a bit even without that level of production capability. As always, it’s about attention to detail and finding people in production who share your obsessive desire to make something beautiful.”
For example, he mentions working with a “wonderful producer and sound engineer named Jody Elff who sent us very high-quality audio equipment, guided us in setting it up, and ran sessions remotely on his computer in New Paltz, New York, while we were here in Brooklyn.” The team created projects for the Knights and for presenters and partners from Jacobsen’s living room, “working many nights from nine to midnight, after the kids all went to bed.”
And audience development via new technology may make inroads with music lovers found far outside the concert hall. For example, virtuoso violinist Kristin Lee, artistic director for Seattle’s innovative Emerald City Music series, reminds me that retail giant Amazon has its own symphony. “It’s like over a hundred people, it’s voluntary, and the conductor is an Amazon employee,” she says. In fact, conductor Hsing-Hui Hsu is a software-development engineer who was a music major at Rice University. “Everyone in the room is there making music simply because they can,” Lee says. “They value classical music and I really think they have the potential to change the future of classical music. That’s why it’s important to bring in a younger audience, because a lot of people argue that our audience is always going to be older but I disagree with that.”