The Music is the Message – Leonard Slatkin on New Technology

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

Leonard Slatkin. ©Steve J. Sherman

Recently in these pages the intrepid Colin Anderson reviewed webcasts of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Symphony cycle. This marked the first time any of our streaming broadcasts had been written about (links below), and it possibly may have been the initial offering of this sort from Classical Source.

Almost every major arts institution has been searching for alternative ways of presenting their product. One can go back to the earliest sound recordings to understand the thinking behind these ventures. Almost one hundred and forty years have passed since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and we are still finding new ways to reach the audience.

What makes this current technology significant?

For me the first answer must be that it increases our public substantially. Of course nothing can replicate the experience of the live concert, but making our presentations available to a broader audience means potential for the future. When the time comes for the DSO to resume national and international touring, for example, we now have a built-in global public, who not only know our musical expertise but have a visual representation of the orchestra as well.

There are drawbacks. I have mixed feelings about opera in movie theaters, as one sees what the video director chooses rather than the vision of the stage director. There can be more than one-hundred people on stage but often the camera is focused on the soprano or tenor, depriving us of taking in the entire scene. The same applies to video presentations of orchestral concerts. If I never see flute fingers through harp strings again, it will be too soon.

But the key difference is that the public goes to the theater to see opera and it comes to the concert hall to hear the orchestra. More than likely our viewership often moves away from the computer, phone or iPad and lets the sound carry the day.

By providing these broadcasts without charge we feel that a new audience is being built. Last season we began these webcasts, with each subscription concert being streamed. The orchestra is getting used to the cameras, as is the live audience. We are able to promote other cultural institutions during the intermission and a casual air permeates the whole production. There was an interview with a gentleman who drove 600 miles each week to hear not only the complete symphonies, but a marathon presentation of the 32 Piano Sonatas as well!

In addition, the Beethoven Cycle will be available as an audio download for a mere twenty dollars. The finished product is the result of editing from two performances of each symphony, with minor patching to fix noises, coughs and page turns. At this writing, we are exploring new ways to package the symphonies, including selling them on a flash drive with additional content.

Who knows what technology will be available five years from now? The only thing I can say for sure is that the nature of how we listen is changing. The cultural institutions that embrace these changes are the ones that have the best chance for long-range sustainability.

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