PHILADELPHIA — If only the American symphony orchestra could be a bit more like Netflix.
As the recorded sounds of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute orchestra recently poured through speakers and video of instrumentalists glowed on 18-foot-tall screens, you had the sense of an old institution reaching for, if not the future, at least one possible future.
Yes, Netflix may be having problems of its own — it’s losing customers in droves — but the streaming service has cemented the idea that people now expect to get their entertainment when they want it.
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Orchestras and other performing arts groups, because of obvious logistics, have long seen their relationship with audiences the other way around: We do what we do when we do it, and you, the consumer, must arrange your life around curtain time.
Can Curtis’ experiment point orchestras, and classical music in general, toward a model that’s more customer-centric?
Finding out is more urgent than ever. Nearly 26 months have passed since life for performing arts groups and everyone else has been anything like normal.
One startling possibility is that even as listeners return to concert halls, loyalty might never be what it was before March 2020.
The lurking fear is that we will never see pre-pandemic attendance numbers again — that some listeners got out of the habit, or that they’ll show up for concerts that are special events but won’t be buying the packages of six or nine concerts with the automacy of before.
But what if the public is no less in love with the music itself, but just wants it presented in a different format?
The Curtis experiment, in the small black box theater known as Studio IIJ, allowed a limited number of Curtis insiders and members of the public to hear and see the very large school orchestra led by Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra.
Dubbed “Immersive Scheherazade,” the experience emulates those immersive Van Gogh shows. Four large screens and several smaller ones showed video close-ups of instrumentalists and conductor in a performance recorded at Curtis in December.
It was a multi-sensory delight. The darkened room, lined with colorful lights, was kept dim. You could sit or stroll as the 45-minute piece played back on 10 high-quality speakers. If ever it was your fantasy to sit in the middle of an orchestra, this is your chance.
The project, led by Curtis senior vice president of digital strategy and innovation Vince Ford, isn’t being thought of as an end-point, but as a beginning.
The experience will evolve, perhaps being repeated with chamber music and traveling to other sites. This first effort had its weak spots. Screens are large, but the color was a little washed out. The sound isn’t live, of course, though it was glorious nonetheless.
But the bigger point is this: “Immersive Scheherazade” could help classical music understand and respond to changes in listener habits well underway before, but accelerated by, the pandemic.
If pandemic consumers are used to getting what they want when they want it, the beauty of the Scheherazade was that it happened every hour on the hour (for a few hours). What if future iterations could expand showtimes: afternoons for someone who doesn’t want to drive at night, Saturday mornings for parents who want to bring children, and evenings woven into date night?
“Immersive Scheherazade” already corrects a deficiency in the virtual concert format.
Many of the opera and orchestra concert films that have flourished during the pandemic have been beautiful, with high production values and creative approaches. But watching at home doesn’t do much for your social life. It doesn’t make you feel part of something bigger. And it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ve been to an event.
For Curtis’ Scheherazade, you were in the company of others. And some of those others weren’t who you might have expected. Embedded at one of the showings I attended were a trumpeter, clarinetist, and a few violinists. All were students, either at Curtis or with other local ensembles, playing along live with the recorded orchestral sound. I was skeptical of the value of live instrumentalists in this setting, thinking the individual players would overpower the recorded sound.
But that didn’t happen. You could choose different positions for a varied experience — hearing a blend if you sat across the room from the trumpeter, but learning quite a bit about what makes up the orchestral fabric if you sat close. In one spot of the score, the trumpet doubled and strengthened the melody of the main theme; in others the instrument rounded out a chord or a particular color whose origins were previously a mystery to you.
That ability to make a choice — where to listen, when to listen, how to listen — means more entry points, and suggests a path to greater popularity for classical music. The future hinges on the ability of the genre and its handlers to achieve something no less worth coveting for all of its elusiveness in fractured times: to be all things to all people.