Close your eyes and imagine you are sitting in a theater, far away from Philadelphia, waiting to hear another sublime performance by the world famous Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall. You hear other concertgoers around you getting settled. The Fabulous Philadelphians are tuning up on stage. There is applause, so you know Music Director Christoph Eschenbach has just walked to the podium. He briefly welcomes the audience.
Now open your eyes because you won't just want to hear what comes next, you will want to see it. As the maestro raises his baton to ready the musicians for Tchaikovsky's gorgeous First Symphony, you see ... his face. His baton comes down, and there, close-up, you see Concertmaster David Kim, bow moving masterfully across his violin.
A little later, at intermission, you are transported backstage, where Assistant Principal Cello Yumi Kendall and Principal Clarinet Ricardo Morales are arguing, good-naturedly, over who has the tougher job playing Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which is on the second half of the program. The maestro stops by to talk about today's performance. Do you have any questions for him? Now is your chance to ask.
All this, plus‹on this particular day‹two glorious hours of Russian repertoire, perfectly suited for the lush sounds of The Philadelphia Orchestra, are what you get if you're a member of the audience for the Orchestra's Global Concert Series, brought to a theater near you using Internet2, a much faster, better-quality Internet technology that will potentially allow performances in Verizon Hall to be seen and heard‹live and in high definition‹in venues all over the world.
"It gives me goose bumps," says Philadelphia Orchestra Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations Ed Cambron, one of the principal players in the Orchestra's foray into high-tech concert broadcasting. The goal, says Cambron, is to develop a regular global audience for live concerts, effectively making The Philadelphia Orchestra an ensemble that serves the world. In return, with an expanded audience, the Orchestra would benefit from more recordings, more tours, and more revenue.
Equally exciting: No one else is doing it. While other orchestras are experimenting with making their music available through technology like satellite radio or downloads, no one has yet ventured into the terrain being explored by The Philadelphia Orchestra. "No one is really looking at re-creating the concert experience remotely," says Cambron.
The Global Concert Series had two successful test runs in the spring of 2007 and this season has a full eight-concert schedule thanks, in large part, to the Orchestra Board, which has been highly influential in seeing the Internet2 project to fruition by making new technology a priority, and through the fervor and personal support of two of its members in particular.
Joseph Field is the generous donor of the state-of-the-art infrastructure. The extensive network of high-definition cameras, strategically placed all around the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall, are a gift of the Joseph and Marie Field Foundation.
The second driving force behind the Internet2 project is Board member Michael Zisman, who has been in the computer and communications business for 35 years, mostly focused on infrastructure or what he calls the "plumbing" part of the business. Zisman left IBM a few years ago to concentrate more on the application of technology of which, he says, Internet2 is a great example.
"People's tastes have changed," Zisman explains. "We need to change along with them." Zisman was in the audience at the University of Pennsylvania during a recent Internet2 multicast and says people had the same reaction as Metropolitan Opera audiences who can now "attend" a Saturday afternoon opera performance‹live‹in movie theaters around the country. "They use the same words," says Zisman. "In a way, it's better than being there live. It was like being on stage."
The technology is different‹the Met broadcasts its performances via satellite‹but the result is similar: Because of the cameras, audiences in remote locations get a bird's eye view of the performance. They may be far from the actual stage, but they are up close and personal with the action. "You actually see the eye contact between the conductor and the soloist," says Zisman. "And it's incredible."
And, of course, it's not for everyone. Although the Orchestra's market research shows most people like the visual element, and feel more connected when they see the musicians up close, as with any change in a beloved tradition, some concertgoers will always want the traditional. The challenge for the Orchestra is to continue moving forward, consistently engaging a larger, newer audience, without alienating its loyal subscriber base. "We are in discovery mode," says Zisman. "We're zigging and zagging as we figure it out."
Zisman's vision is to take The Philadelphia Orchestra to audiences around the world, delivering the orchestra experience on the terms the audience members want to experience it, whether it be in a concert hall, on CD, or‹now possible thanks to Internet2‹live, but in a remote location.
Christopher Amos, the Orchestra's director of electronic media, has the task of administering this merging of high art and high technology. "This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for the Orchestra to exploit the convergence of new technology in the service of its art form," says Amos. "The Internet2 initiative presents some incredible challenges as well, as we build the infrastructure and production capabilities to match the world-class reputation of this orchestra. We are very fortunate to work with a music director and musicians who take great pride in this orchestra's long history of innovation in electronic media, and who embrace the opportunities presented by new technology."
Philadelphia Orchestra concerts are currently being multicast via Internet2 in about two dozen locations across the country and around the world. Local remote sites include the University of Pennsylvania, Montgomery County Community College, and the University of Delaware. People attending adhere to concert etiquette. They don't talk. Cell phones are turned off. The audience applauds.
The Internet2 project is on the fast track. In addition to a multicast from this month's Bernstein Festival, there are five more dates on the Global Concert calendar this season, including performances of Orff's Carmina burana, Mahler's massive "Symphony of a Thousand," and Maestro Eschenbach's final appearances as music director in May.
Orchestra leaders expect that in time, the general public will have ample opportunity to attend a concert in one of the remote locations, perhaps for as little as $10 a ticket. Internet2, they say, is important to the Orchestra's future not only financially, but also, and more importantly, in fulfillment of its mission. "We have an opportunity to lead here," says Zisman. "Clearly the broader the audience, the more we serve our mission. Why would you not want to move as quickly as you can?"
Cambron envisions a day when thousands of people are sitting in performing arts venues, theaters, and other large halls all over the world, seeing‹and, of course, hearing‹The Philadelphia Orchestra live. "At the end of the day," says Cambron, "it's all about the music."
Margie Smith is a Philadelphia_ã_based writer and journalist. She is former director of communications for The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and currently the host of The Philadelphia Orchestra_ã_s Global Concert Series.