How can classical music sound more like Netflix? The bold experiment of the Curtis Institute is one answer.


If only the American Symphony Orchestra could be a little more like Netflix.

As the recorded sounds of the orchestra at the Curtis Institute last weekend poured through the speakers and video of the instrumentalists shone on 18-foot-tall screens, you had the feeling of an old institution. seeking, if not the future, at least a possible future.

Yes, Netflix may have its own issues – it’s losing customers en masse – but the streaming service has cemented the idea that people now expect to get their entertainment when they want it. Orchestras and other performing arts groups, due to obvious logistics, have long seen their relationship with audiences upside down: we do what we do when we do it, and you, the consumer, have to organize your life around curtain time.

Can Curtis’ experience steer orchestras, and classical music in general, toward a more client-centric model?

Finding out is more urgent than ever. Almost 26 months have passed since the performing arts bands life and everyone has been something like normal. A startling possibility is that even if listeners return to concert halls, loyalty may never be what it was before March 2020. The latent fear is that we may never see pre-pandemic attendance numbers again. – that some listeners have lost the habit, or that they will show up for concerts which are special events but will not buy the packages of six or nine concerts with the automatic mechanism of before.

But what if audiences are no less enamored with the music itself, but just want it presented in a different format?

The Curtis Experience, in the small black box theater known as Studio IIJ, allowed a limited number of Curtis insiders and audience members to hear and see the school’s very large orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä, music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. Double Immersive Scheherazade, the experience emulates those immersive Van Gogh shows. Four large screens and several smaller ones showed video close-ups of instrumentalists and bandleader during a recorded performance at Curtis in December.

It was a multi-sensory delight. The dark room, lined with colored lights, was darkened. You can sit back or walk around as the 45-minute piece plays over 10 high-quality speakers. If you’ve ever dreamed of sitting in the middle of an orchestra, this is your chance. Curtis has extended screenings through this weekend and into the next.

Seemingly at the right time, the pandemic intervened last weekend to prove the importance of alternatives to traditional live concerts. Faced with positive COVID-19 test results among its performers, Curtis was forced to cancel its two orchestra concerts and two opera performances. the recorded Immersive Scheherazade the experiment, however, continued.

The project, spearheaded by Curtis Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy and Innovation Vince Ford, is not seen as an endpoint, but a beginning. The experience will evolve, perhaps repeating itself with chamber music and moving to other sites. This first effort had its weak points. The screens are great, but the color was a bit washed out. The sound isn’t live, of course, though it was glorious nonetheless.

But the most important 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, last weekend’s beauty Scheherazade it happened hour by hour (for a few hours). What if future iterations could extend session times: afternoons for someone who doesn’t want to drive at night, Saturday mornings for parents who want to bring kids, and evenings woven into the night of dates. ?

Immersive Scheherazade already corrects a shortcoming of the virtual concert format. Many opera and orchestral concert films that have flourished during the pandemic have been magnificent, 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 like you’re part of something bigger. And it doesn’t make you feel like you’ve attended an event.

For Curtis Scheherazade, you were in the company of other people. And some of those others weren’t what you might have expected. At one of the performances I attended, there was a trumpeter, a clarinetist and a few violinists. All were students, either at Curtis or with other local ensembles, performing live with recorded orchestral sound. I was skeptical of the value of live instrumentalists in this setting, thinking that individual players would dominate the recorded sound.

But that didn’t happen. You can choose different positions for a varied experience – hear a mix if you’re seated across from the trumpeter, but learn a bit more about what makes up the orchestral fabric if you’re seated close by. At one point in the score, the trumpet doubled and reinforced the melody of the main theme; in others, the instrument complemented a particular chord or color whose origin was previously unknown to you.

This 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 depends on the ability of the genre and its stewards to achieve something no less worth coveting for all its elusiveness in fractured times: to be everything to everyone.

“Immersive Scheherazade” is repeated on May 6, 7 and 8 and May 13, 14 and 15, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. It’s free but reservations are required. curtis.edu215-717-3181.


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