Saturday, September 26, 2015

April 23, 2009: Concerts on a tight budget in cyberspace

When I write about music on my blog, I tend to be emphatic about the fact that audio capture technology is still not adequate enough for any recording to be as effective a listening experience as a "live" performance;  and I recently reinforced this position here in writing about the San Francisco Symphony performance of Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition suite.  Nevertheless, I cannot deny that concert tickets tend to be expensive;  and these are times when we need to worry about spending our money wisely.  Therefore, whatever my misgivings about the technology may be, I feel it is worth examining some of the options available to those of you reading this on a computer interested in having a "concert experience" in cyberspace.

Many of you have probably already discovered that there is quite a lot of material available through YouTube.  These are, for the most part, amateur recordings;  and they tend to capture performances on a small scale, such as recitals.  They thus tend to work best for recordings of encore material at the end of a concert.  However, if one of the objectives of concert listening is to broaden our individual attention spans, the brief clips of YouTube do not provide the best experience.  Indeed, while the YouTube Symphony Orchestra captured their entire Carnegie Hall performance, the videos were uploaded  in two large chunks, the first of which was almost an hour and the second almost an hour-and-a-half.  Trying to view these videos turned out to be a very frustrating experience, probably because the servers were not up to delivering an uninterrupted feed for such extended durations.  I have to confess that I gave up when I realized that I could not get past the third movement of Brahms' fourth symphony (the first work on the Carnegie Hall program) without those interruptions.  Fortunately, there are other sites where one can find better feeds;  and some of them are as free as YouTube!

One of the more interesting sites I have discovered is a Streaming Video Web page for the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.  This School has a reputation for providing some of the best education in music performance in a setting of an excellent overall university curriculum.  The current catalog of available performances is relatively limited, but it covers both ballet and opera as well as orchestral performance.  The video capture is not always the best, as when I found it hard to see very much when the camera was pointed in at the dimly-lit orchestra pit for the overture of Otto Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor;  and not all of the opera performances seem to have subtitles.  However, the sound is excellent;  and I have yet to run into the problem of interrupting pauses.  In the latter case this may be due to the fact that the servers are not experiencing very much demand, so I may be running a risk in spreading the word about this site!  (More likely, however, is that the managers of this Web site can take advantage of the expertise of the Indiana University Computer Science Department.)

For the best virtual experience of a symphony orchestra concert, however, I have yet to find anything better than the Digital Concert Hall created for the Berliner Philharmoniker.  This is the perfect combination of a first-rate ensemble, imaginatively stimulating programs, and the sort of camera work that assists the ear in the listening process.  The major down-side is that it is not free.  On the other hand the "admission" is charged to the computer, rather than the people sitting around the screen;  so this definitely qualifies as an option for a tight budget if the cost (which is about 10 Euros for a full concert) is shared.  Concerts can be viewed through either a "live" stream or from an archive of past performances.  Given the difference in time zones, most folks on the West Coast will probably prefer viewing from the archives.  (I decided to spring for a season pass, which cost a little less than 100 Euros and gives me full access to all live streams and everything in the archive.)

The Metropolitan Opera has now picked up on this model with their Met Player option, which apparently supports both conventional video and high-definition signals.  It also supports a much larger archive;  and I do not think it supports a live stream (which might take business away from the HD broadcasts to movie theaters).  Again, this is not free;  but the price is in the same league as the Berliner Philharmoniker.  A year's subscription costs $149.99;  but you can also subscribe for a month for $14.99.  A single opera rents for $3.99, unless you want HD, which is $4.99.  The one caveat I offer here is that I have not yet tested this option, because I only just learned about it (from SF Opera Examiner Cindy Warner).

My guess is that there will be more virtual concert-going sites appearing on the Internet, some of which will be free.  I have not tried to be exhaustive with this summary.  Anyone who has discovered a favorite site that I omitted is free to spread the word through a Comment!

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