Written by: Chris Caspell
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Susan Bullock (soprano)
Emanuel Ax (piano)
Producer: Misha Donat
Engineer: Tony Faulkner
Saturday 23 April 2005, Royal Festival Hall, London
With 2005 being the 60th-anniversary year of the Philharmonia Orchestra it only seems reasonable to expect something new and exciting from one of the most forward-looking of London’s orchestras. After five year’s development, the Philharmonia’s music-education website, The Sound Exchange, made musical history on this day as the first live webcast of a concert by a UK orchestra.
The cyberspace event began at 5.30 p.m., a full two hours before the start of the concert, but even then there was a number of people online and something of a party atmosphere in the chat-room that accompanied the video link to the Royal Festival Hall. Members of the Orchestra were in the room, including the Philharmonia’s regular Concert Master, James Clark who took the night off, leaving Strauss’s tricky solos in the supremely capable hands of Benjamin Nabarro.
Logging into the Sound Exchange site was a little tortuous with an increasing number of mouse-clicks leading a listener through links and decisions until finally alighting at the interactive site. Surely a simpler link from the main home page to the interactive page would have been preferable. Once on the broadcast page all problems appeared to vanish. The site is intuitive and web-master Myles Jackson or his colleague Richard was always close-by listening attentively to what the other room-members were saying. Notes were taken and we were assured that the minor teething problems would be ironed out next time – if there is to be one.
Why should there be a doubt as to a future web-cast? Chris Martin, the Philharmonia’s Head of Development explained that this concert was really a trial to see if it would be viable, in the future, to broadcast concerts in this way. It is a very costly exercise, whether on television or the Internet; there is a need for a camera crew, engineers and sound advisors. The object is to produce an audio-visual feast that is second only to being at the concert itself.
The concert is beamed via satellite over to Turin and then fed back to the UK for world-wide distribution. Because of the satellite transmission there is about a sixty-second delay between the live concert and the broadcast reaching the Internet – but this goes entirely unnoticed. The picture quality was superb, even in “full-screen” mode and the compression is just right in order to keep the number of artefacts to a minimum. All in all a technical triumph!
At the same time as the concert was being broadcast there was a running commentary, called the “Listening Guide” to highlight certain key areas of the music, which included announcing the substitution of soprano Angela Denoke by Susan Bullock. All this was detailed in text below the picture. If you wanted to get rid of all the interactive bits then you could simply go to the non-interactive site and watch the concert unadorned.
Musically the concert was hard to fault. Tristan is a work that can only be understood by those that have truly loved, which makes the opera pretty universal. Bullock triumphantly wielded love to put one in the eye for death in Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’ and Salonen concentrated the tragic elements of this opera into a mere twenty minutes and left the listener desperate to hear his interpretation of the complete work. After the concert he rushed to catch a flight back to Paris where he is indeed conducting the whole music-drama.
The general consensus among the chat-room listeners was how clear the sound and vision was. Particular attention was drawn to the closely-cropped camera shots which demonstrated some of the best camera and live editing work to be seen both on television and the internet for some time.
This was a huge success for the Philharmonia and, as Anne-Marie Minhall noted in her various discussions with members of the Orchestra’s staff, it is something that other orchestras will no doubt be trying in the future. Broadband now accounts for around 41% of the UK’s Internet users, a number that has doubled in the past six months. The Philharmonia should be applauded for taking this first step in disseminating its musical art around the world via this medium. Chat-room members came from France, Germany and Sweden, as well as the UK, and included some people watching their first concert.
You can buy part or the whole of this concert for download online. There are four audio tracks in total, available for £1.00 each; or the whole concert costs £3.00.