Back to the Future

Classic Arts Features   Back to the Future
With the release of its first CD on the Ondine label, the Philadelphia Orchestra is once again at the forefront of media technology.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's first CD on the Finnish label Ondine, featuring Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra led by Music Director Christoph Eschenbach, released last month, represents a new beginning for a distinguished tradition as well as an imaginative approach to the business of recording American orchestras. The Orchestra's return to regular recording after a decade is one of a series of special initiatives in electronic media, launched this season, that will give it new local, national, and international reach.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's recording history stretches back to 1917 and includes hundreds of releases. But during the 1990s, the expense and market pressures on orchestral recording led most of the major labels to end their relationships with American orchestras. Philadelphia's last such deal, with EMI, expired in 1996. But the Orchestra's musicians and Board felt that continuing to record was essential, and in 1996 they established the Philadelphia Orchestra Media Institute to investigate strategies and opportunities to do so. POMI released the Orchestra's first self-produced recording, of music by Dvorák and Liszt in 1999. A three-disc Schumann recording came out in 2003.

Christoph Eschenbach made finding a solution to the recording dilemma a priority when he became music director in 2003. "The whole world needs to hear The Philadelphia Orchestra," he says. The Ondine agreement, facilitated by Kevin Kleinmann, formerly vice-president of Polygram/Universal Classics and executive producer for the recordings, recommits the Orchestra to a regular recording program with worldwide distribution for the first time in a decade. The contract calls for a minimum of three recordings a year for three years, with a yearly extension option. Unlike traditional record company-orchestra deals, however, it is a collaborative arrangement, in which the Orchestra, the musicians, and the recording company share the risks and the rewards of the enterprise. The Orchestra will record, edit, and produce the recording masters, which it will own. All the recordings will be taken from live concerts; the Orchestra has invested in state-of-the-art recording technology for Verizon Hall, and engages its own engineers to record the selected concerts. Ondine will manufacture and distribute the final product to an international market.

The arrangement was made possible by an unusual new agreement in which the musicians share both the revenue and the ownership of the recordings. A new media compensation structure for the musicians, established as part of the 2004 contract, was a critical factor in the deal. Musicians will receive considerably less compensation up front than the nationally established rate. However, they will receive a larger royalty than before, once the recordings make back their investment. What is more groundbreaking is that through POMI and the Orchestra's artistic committee, they have a say in repertoire decisions and approval of all aspects of the final product.

Cellist John Koen, former chairman of the Orchestra's Members' Committee and a member of the POMI Board of Directors, says that the agreement "caused some concern" on the national union scene and was "a bit revolutionary." However, he points out, most of the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians recognized the economic realities of the recording business. "Some of the rates are not economically feasible any more, which is why there's not much recording," he explains. "When you make two recordings between 1998 and 2003, as opposed to six a year, you realize after eight years that it's not coming back." Philadelphia has led the way: Koen notes that negotiations are now going on at the national union level for an agreement to cover self-produced recordings.

Since the recordings are made from live concerts, and many voices must be heard in planning them, the recording repertoire discussions are complex. Upcoming seasons' schedules must be adjusted to accommodate the repertoire that is to be recorded. "The music director, the musicians, and the record company have to agree," Koen says. "It's interesting, and it's new for us. We're in the position that the record company used to be in. We have to think about things such as, are there too many Beethoven Fifths in the market?" The recording engineer weighs it to discuss what repertoire best shows off the Orchestra in Verizon Hall. Kathleen van Bergen, vice president of artistic planning for the Orchestra, describes the repertoire conversations as "fascinating" and adds, "These creative conversations are a great way to deepen the relationship between management, the Orchestra, and the music director."

So far, recording repertoire possibilities include well-known works by Mahler and Tchaikovsky, for example. Although there has been much talk about a glut of standard works in the recording market, Ondine is interested in adding more of them to its catalog, which is best known for its recordings of Finnish and contemporary composers. "Christoph Eschenbach is one of the greatest living conductors, and he has a lot to say with standard repertoire," says Ondine's managing director, Reijo Kiilunen. "I'm convinced that there is an audience for the spectacular sound of this orchestra‹which hasn't been heard for ten years‹recorded in the new technology of surround sound." Kiilunen is especially optimistic about the booming market for recordings in Asia, where, he says, taste is still quite conservative. Ondine plans to press 15,000 copies of each title.

The participants are also excited about recording live. "I like concert recordings very much," says Eschenbach. "The excitement that the concert creates is on the record, versus the drier atmosphere in the studio, and the record-buying audience experiences it, too." Live recording remains a risk, of course. Even though all four concerts for each program will be recorded, enabling the engineers to mix and match as needed, there are no patch sessions, and if the conductor and the musicians decide that the final product is not worthy, they can choose not to release it. But the conductor is ready. "Any concert is a risk," he says. "Risk-taking is better than routine. This is such a high-class orchestra, and it plays such marvelous concerts, we can be confident that results on the tape will be excellent."

The Philadelphia Orchestra is also planning to expand its media presence through radio and television. For the first time in several years, the Orchestra will be heard nationally on the weekly NPR program SymphonyCast. The first two of four concerts, all recorded in the spring of 2005 and produced by NPR in co-production with WHYY Philadelphia, were heard on October 9 and November 6; the other air dates are December 18 and New Year's Day, 2006. The program includes a special new feature: brief interviews with featured musicians, conductors, and composers at the beginning and end of the program and between pieces. The Orchestra is expecting to have a continuing radio presence and is working on an agreement with NPR that will extend the relationship. As is the case with the recording agreement, the musicians agreed to a lower payment rate based on having a radio presence 26 weeks each year.

Can video be far behind? This fall, the Orchestra installed five tiny robotic cameras in Verizon Hall. The cameras, which are remotely operated, removing the need for the presence of disruptive and expensive cameramen, have many potential uses. "We are looking at local television broadcasts and discussing possible DVD projects," says van Bergen. "The musicians are being wonderful in their flexibility about rules and regulations." The Orchestra also anticipates incorporating visual elements in some of its special presentations, and plans to hire a producer who will think about how to best use this technology. Video, like recording and radio, will not only reach new potential audiences for The Philadelphia Orchestra, but also," says van Bergen, "add a new dimension to the concert experience."

With these new initiatives, The Philadelphia Orchestra is poised to build on its glorious recording history and lead the industry into the new world of media technology.

Heidi Waleson, a New York_ã_based writer and music critic, is the opera critic for the Wall Street Journal.

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