From Gothenburg (or Berlin, Bergen, New York...) to your living room

Martin CullingfordMon 6th November 2017

Concert streaming can transform our relationships with orchestras - and our new guide shows you how

The November issue of Gramophone - out now - contains a special six-page focus on concert, opera and event streaming. It’s our second such supplement, and reading it – and for that matter comparing this year’s with last year’s – reveals what an extraordinary area of growth this sector is seeing. For a start, just to include all the organisations engaged in it, let alone do them justice, required an extra couple of pages.

The variety of these organisations is impressive and welcome. There are, of course, the enterprises whose very remit lies in this area - sites like Medici TV, which webcast a wide variety of content and programmes (from operas, to concerts, masterclasses and even our own Awards) - and feel in many ways like arts channels, to adopt old-school broadcasting terminology. Turning to organisations of much older vintage, however - the orchestras and opera houses - it might easily have been left to the familiar grandees such as New York’s Metropolitan Opera or the Berlin Philharmonic to bring their might and resources to bear on making live performances as widely available as possible, whether through cinema broadcasts or online. But for all the riches they offer, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of all this is the chance to become very well acquainted with the work of ensembles and organisations with whom – without such technology – such familiarity simply wouldn’t be possible. Contemporary opera company Tête-à-Tête, for example – boasting videos of an extraordinary 400 productions and counting – or the equally forward-looking Manchester-based ensemble Psappha. Or masterclasses from the Juilliard or Jacobs schools of music. And orchestras like the Bergen Philharmonic or Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra who, though familiar from recordings, now allow us to take a virtual seat in their stalls, to develop a genuine sense of association with and understanding of their repertoire, their approach and their players. To become, if you choose, part of the community that defines a regular audience.

Straight after sending the November issue – with its digital streaming feature – to press, I headed to Gothenburg to see from the inside what this all means to one such organization, and one that has grasped the possibilities with imagination and commitment. I’ve always been fascinated by the different relationship arts organisations have to their locality in what we might call – without meaning to be remotely disparaging - ‘second cities’. The CBSO in Birmingham, RLPO in Liverpool, the Hallé in Manchester, and, here, the GSO and Sweden’s second biggest city. For all the prestige attached to a capital’s cultural crown jewels, there sometimes seems a more personal sense of pride and affection between a second city and their – and it often feels more powerfully their – orchestras. I suspect the complacency of capitals plays a part. Perhaps too it’s the size – when you’re a slightly smaller city but with a world-class ensemble in your midst, you’re just more aware of (and proud of) it. And perhaps, in a smaller city, such ensembles can better weave themselves into the fabric of a town’s identity. Key sponsors are often the region’s leading employers – in Gothenburg’s case, Volvo. Perhaps, as we so often see, away from the capital such organisations feel more free to take greater risks with repertoire and artists.

But whatever it is, taking a seat among the 1200 in Gothenburg’s beautiful Canadian maple auditorium, I did feel as if I were joining a community. Everyone rose to their feet after Yuja Wang’s thrillingly musical Rachmaninov Concerto No 4, and then again when new Chief Conductor Santtu-Mattias Rouvali concluded an impressively dramatic reading of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 12. Both standing ovations were hard won, I hasten to add, but that’s still fairly rare in my experience. Does that often happen here, I ask? Yes, I’m told. It felt a bit like, to take each half respectively, a family welcoming an honoured guest, and then one supporting their home hero. And while the GSO are of course renowned - many recordings under the likes of Neeme Järvi are rightly acclaimed - there’s an insight into an ensemble which only seeing them in their home can really bring, and it’s this that their webcasts can uniquely transmit to the wider world. As with the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, the Gothenburgers have taken the technology seriously. Camera angles are well thought out and thoughtfully employed (zeroing in on a principal for their solos but also allowing for the serendipity of wider shots), all masterminded from a dedicated control room. Sound comes exclusively via a ‘Decca tree’ – a simple stereo set-up of three mics – hanging above the conductor, an effective way of simply capturing his sonic intentions, and something else that perhaps distinguishes webcasts from recordings and their more forensic mic placements. What the conductor hears is, very much, what the viewer gets (or potentially better – those pioneering Decca engineers knew a thing or two).

And you hear (and see of course) these various organisations either online or through an app. Various models of subscription exist across the sector – the Met Opera charges $149.99 a year, or $14.99 a month – swap the dollar sign to euros, and that’s the Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall price too. GSO Play is a bit different – you can watch concerts online for free for 30 days (though a premium option of 99SEK (about £10) gives you access for 90 days, on and offline). Which is, it might be said, pretty generous. So what’s the aim? Outreach – both in terms of reaching new classical listeners, but also encouraging committed classical listeners to become more familiar with the ensemble. As the GSO puts it: ‘we aim to reach a broader and more diverse audience throughout the world.’

If the opportunities offered by this new area feel unprecedented, some of the issues it raises are probably not. Back in 1931, Rachmaninov, in the pages of Gramophone, bemoaned the impact broadcasting could have on recording. ‘It is so seldom that I am sincerely satisfied with my performance, so often that I feel it could have been better. And when making records it is actually possible to achieve something approaching artistic perfection…Can the radio artist, who has no opportunity to hear how his performance comes through, ever know a similar satisfaction in his work? Myself, I dislike radio music and listen to it very seldom.’ The great composer-pianist was, it seems, uncomfortable with the idea that a one-off performance would be captured, conveyed and perhaps then retained for posterity.

Nearly a century later, I’m aware from conversations I’ve had with conductors that the proliferation of live recordings led to a process of adjustment too. But it’s refreshing to contrast Rachmaninov’s views of broadcasting with the attitude of Gothenburg’s dynamic new young maestro to live streaming. Santtu-Matias Rouvali is keenly aware of, and keen to grasp, the role that young artists – like him, like Yuja Wang – can play as advocates to their generation, and sees technology as part of that. The GSO Play set up was, he told me, a part of what he considers the ‘great circumstances’ that made his new post such a compelling one. But when I ask whether the streaming dimension, the fact that every note is – audibly and visually - captured, conveyed and preserved, affects the way he thinks about the concert experience at all, he looks somewhat bemused by the question. ‘No, I don’t care, I don’t think about that at all. Not at all.’ Aged 32, he’s among the first of a generation for whom this is simply the norm. Simply a part of what they do. We, the audiences - wherever we might be - are the richer for it.

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017