Profile: Online Orchestra

Classic Arts Features   Profile: Online Orchestra
YouTube clips, Facebook correspondence, iTunes Apps, Twitter feeds, artist blogs... Eddie Silva explores the new technologies that are a growing part of professional musicians' lives.


The fact that a lot of the music that orchestras play is old music is a matter for discussion, or even heated argument. There are audiences who come to hear orchestras play because they know they are going to hear venerated masterpieces, longtime greatest hits that many of them have heard many times before. There are also audiences who have heard enough of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms in one lifetime, and are enthusiastic about the new.

Likewise, one audience is comforted by the traditions of the orchestral performance: tuxes and tails, respectful silences between movements, an evening for dressing up: as another would prefer the scheme to be shaken up a bit: drop the formal wear, applaud when you're thrilled, dress how you feel.

These divided conceptions of what orchestras are or should be are reflected in how the musicians themselves are perceived. Some audiences like to see young faces in the orchestra; others may be concerned as to whether the young folks have attained the deep mastery of the works that their elders have, or are assumed to have. When Leila Josefowicz played Steven Mackey's violin concerto Beautiful Passing with the SLSO in 2008, a number of local bloggers had been invited to the performance. They were mesmerized by Josefowicz , and commented on how they couldn't believe that she moved and performed "like a rock star." Others in the audience were more taken aback than taken in.

Some people go to art to take sanctuary from the racket of the modern world. Others go to see that world reflected and refracted before them. For many of those people, an orchestra is not exactly the most opportune medium for exploring con- temporary experience. The bloggers were surprised that the SLSO even knew about them; then they were surprised that the concert connected so deeply with them: part of that connection deriving from the attractive blond who played like a rocker. Although the Rite of Spring finale was practically a head-banging experience as well.

An orchestra isn't modern, by any means. Nothing's plugged in. The musicians sit with their parts on music stands before them. A conductor, sometimes called a maestro: of all things: leads them. For the string musicians, some of those instruments are centuries old.

An orchestra is a living incongruence: both inside and outside of the contemporary moment. Perhaps no one lives this duality more than the musicians themselves. Eighteenth-century violin in one hand; iPhone in the other. Brahms on the music stand; Radiohead on the iPod. At the rehearsal break for Handel, take a moment to Twitter or check Facebook.

Cellist Bjorn Ranheim is a recent iPhone devotee. "I'm addicted. I love it," he says. Ranheim admits that he is someone who looked down on those who were constantly checking their technogadgets for messages or information, but now, he says, "It's such an amazing resource. When you have a question, 'When was Mahler born or when did he write this symphony?' you can find it immediately. You can bring these mini-computers into any situation, even the concert hall. You can take a picture at a rehearsal break and have it up on your Facebook page in seconds."

It also comes in handy professionally. "I'm in negotiations for a new cello," Ranheim says, "this [the iPhone] has been a lifeline for that. "It's an incredible tool for publicity," he adds. "String quartets, recitals: you can send out info on Facebook and reach your audience." Ranheim puts in a plug for the SLSO iPhone App as well. "Somebody asks what we're playing, in two weeks, I can tell them, or even show them."

His iPhone helps him with his practice time as well. Ranheim presses the screen and an image of an old-school metronome appears, and begins keeping time. He presses another button and a tuning device appears. Ranheim sings a note and checks the pitch. Then a keyboard shows up on the screen. Ranheim presses the keys and it plays. "I use this when I'm trying to figure out stuff musically."

Although he doesn't Twitter: everyone has boundaries: Ranheim is thoroughly plugged in. But his appreciation of the concert experience is one without the Internet connections. "The beauty of what we do and what happens in Powell Hall is that it's one of the few places left where people can be untethered. You can turn off the cell phone, the iPhone, what have you, and just be in the presence of the music. We're still very much old school."

Of course, audiences may choose their own manner of concert appreciation. Are people Twittering amidst the Brahms? Most definitely. SLSO Concertmaster David Halen goes back and forth between old- school and new-school methods of preparation. "When preparing orchestral parts, I use a good old-fashioned score. If it's really complicated, I'll use YouTube to watch different performances. It's a great resource for musicians. You can see exactly what Nathan Milstein was doing fifty years ago. "There are software programs you can use that slow the music down without changing pitch. There is so much on iTunes that is available now: 10, 20 interpretations." But as much as new technology is an aid to Halen in playing his Giovanni Battista Guadagnini violin, made in Milan, Italy in 1753, he concludes, "In the end, there's nothing like the first rehearsal. The physical experience trumps the virtual every time."


Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and writes the slso blog:

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