One of the strangest moments, among the many strange things we are coping with since the coronavirus crisis erupted, occurred when Avi Shoshani, the secretary-general of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, got on the stage of the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv, apologized to the small audience, and told us to go home. Based on the newest instructions, which had been reported by the media only a few minutes earlier, we were too large a gathering.
But unlike us, the orchestra did not go home. It got on stage and played the full concert program, which was livestreamed on the orchestra’sFacebook page.
This is the type of thing being done by many organizations in the classical music world. The Royal Opera House of Vienna may be closed, but each day it streams videos of operas and ballets that were previously performed in its magnificent hall. The videos are free, and the schedule resembles the schedule planned for the season as closely as possible. In other words, there may not be live performances, but the opera is trying to maintain its schedule online.
“The show must go on,” declares the press release issued by Tremolo, the excellent Israeli percussion ensemble. It, too, has moved its activities online, and has started to conduct interactive activities onFacebook. Some of its performances for children as part of the Education Ministry’s culture basket include interacting with the audience, identifying works, and responses from the audience to what they’re hearing on stage. These responses are being translated to questions directed to the audience at home, and they are answered via the Facebook page on which the performance is being broadcast. For this young audience, this interaction on social media is presumably almost as natural and logical as a live dialogue with musicians on a stage.
“This is the harbinger of the movement of culture consumption of things like classical music and world music to streaming ‘live’ via the internet, and the next stage will be purchasing the option to watch performances and concerts of this type online, so as to support artists,” said Tremolo’s press release. The intention is clear: Now this is a response to a crisis situation, but in the future, it will be another way, perhaps the primary way, to connect people with artistic music in the internet age.
The truth is, though, that the recent developments aren’t a harbinger. The coronavirus epidemic and the preventive steps and isolation that have accompanied it are unfolding just as large music organizations are in the midst of their transition to the digital age. One of the pioneers is the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which has had a digital concert hall since 2008. The digital hall is an internet channel that broadcasts interviews and documentary materials – most of them free – as well as 40 concerts a year, mostly for payment. At the beginning of March, shortly after the orchestra stopped its concerts, the digital hall was opened to the general public for free, offering hundreds of recorded concerts by the orchestra. It’s a website with truly fascinating materials and it’s worth taking advantage and registering.
New York’s Metropolitan Opera is operating similarly. While the opera is closed, its website is open and broadcasting a wide range of performances for free. There have even been private initiatives online. Pianist Igor Levit, one of the more outstanding young pianists, uploaded a home concert to Twitter in which he plays a work he has already recorded, “The People United Will Never be Defeated,” a series of impressive piano variations of the same song by Frederic Rzewski.
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From the perspective of the listener, it’s not self-evident that the show had to go on. Though the concerts and performances stopped, there was certainly no shortage of available music. Along with CDs, which still get plenty of use in my home, when you think of YouTube, streaming sites and SoundCloud there is far more music than anyone could listen to in their lifetimes.
Some of the online events do indeed have a certain added value amounting to more than just listening to music online. The interactive nature of the Tremolo ensemble concerts are one example, or a concert that was canceled but is still broadcast live at the scheduled time, preserving a semblance of life before the epidemic. But in general, the listener is being forced to adjust to a life without the excitement – and acoustics – of a concert hall, and to utilize the time to investigate the great bounty of recordings the internet offers.
“The show must go on,” then, is not a musical need, but an emotional one, and to a great extent an administrative and financial one.
Through these online activities the opera houses and orchestras are creating a feeling of continuity, an anchor for that group of people who are an important reason for their existence. In this fashion they are also demonstrating a presence and reminding everyone of their value in the cultural arena; they may even be reaching new audiences that wouldn’t bother to come to a concert hall but will follow an online digital concert hall. An organization like Tremolo is hoping to ensure continued culture basket funding, if it can prove that instead of the concerts that were canceled it was providing educational activities that exposed children and teens to music. The Berlin Philharmonic, while one of the world’s foremost orchestras, is also government-supported and has a responsibility and a public obligation to provide the public with something during this time, as well as bolster its image as being involved in the community.
Opportunity in crisis
“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” is a statement by Winston Churchill that a lot of people are repeating nowadays. Those orchestras that have progressed digitally like the Berlin Philharmonic already understood that the digital concert hall must be nurtured and promoted as a medium to complement the live concert. In normal times, it didn’t lead to a drop in the number of people coming to the concerts; it gave classical music lovers an opportunity to remember, to prepare, to study things in depth and primarily to listen to what they preferred, based on their needs and moods at a given time. The digital concert hall is also an opportunity to reach new audiences and to choose a more varied repertoire than what is usually presented during concert series.
For the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, whose digital concert hall is still being developed, this is an excellent opportunity to take advantage of its resources and turn it into an attractive website, so that subscribers will seek it out during the closure to stay connected to the orchestra, so that music students can visit it and be exposed to local history and to works that aren’t performed very often. It would be interesting to search the website for Israeli works, or cooperative ventures between the orchestra with other bodies, to navigate through a concert hall that is more colorful and richer than the Philharmonic’s bricks-and-mortar concert hall.
There is no reason to fear driving away audiences or making them angry, since all the “regular” content will be available in the digital concert hall; it can be a fine home for audiences that aren’t eager to try new things. But along with that, a combination of new content, cultural variation and interesting conversations about music could facilitate the orchestra’s communication with a broader audience.
Although the supply of online music is huge, it can’t make up for the absence and uniqueness of live concerts. We will have to wait patiently until the show really does go on. But meanwhile, for many orchestras, and for the Israeli Philharmonic in particular, this is an opportunity to upgrade their offerings and the scope of the audiences they reach. Indeed, a crisis not to be wasted.