| Geoff Edgers |
PHILADELPHIA (WP-BLOOM) — The symphony concert begins like any other, with lights dimmed, players in formal black and the conductor dashing to the podium.
That’s until composer Jennifer Higdon, whose work is being performed on this night, takes the Verizon Hall stage and delivers a directive she has never given before.
“We encourage you,” she says with a smile, “to use your phone.”
This isn’t a practical joke aimed at the maestro. It’s the debut of LiveNote, an app the Philadelphia Orchestra has developed to encourage concertgoers to toggle along to the music on their smartphones.
The experiment at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts is meant to make the orchestra more accessible, particularly for the Facebook generation.
A half-century after museums rolled out the first audio guides, cultural institutions are working harder than ever — and spending more — to develop new ways to attract the next generation of arts consumers.
The investment in technology, they concede, comes with some risk.
What draws in newcomers might alienate the core audience, or those who don’t want to glance at a screen while gazing at Goya.
Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, faced that conflict this summer when the orchestra tried out a special “lawncast”, offering ticket-buyers the chance to follow a concert through screens that offered information on the performance as well as a “conductor cam”.
“There’s a generation or two out there, screens are a dominant part of their life, and if you’re going to communicate with those people, technology has got to be one of the levers,” Volpe said. “But the reality is, during the concert, there were people who had four machines in front of them. At a certain point, I couldn’t enjoy the music if I was trying to manage four different screens.”
The days of musicians and artists locking themselves off from the public are largely gone. Today, violinists blog about their travel habits, and art conservators are put on display behind glass walls.
Just as in televised sports, where a lone centre field camera has been supplanted by multiple angles and players wired for sound, cultural consumers have grown to expect to get backstage and behind-the-scenes access to the creative process.
Mobile devices are one tool that can open those doors.
“It’s kind of anachronistic that we have all this technology, we use it, and the first thing we do when you come into a concert hall is ask you to turn it off,” said Youngmoo Kim, the associate engineering professor at Drexel University who helped develop LiveNote.
Classical concerts and cellphones have always had an uneasy relationship. Errant rings usually inspire the wrath of the conductor, some of whom have been known to stop the players to scold the violator.
And a 2004 experiment with handheld guides by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was met with mixed reviews.
“The novices enjoyed the commentary the most,” said Kevin DuLuca, Pittsburgh’s director of information technology. “The people familiar with the works found it more distracting and didn’t want to be fiddling with the devices.”
But technology has advanced, so instead of having to distribute costly devices — the case in Pittsburgh — today’s orchestras can simply create an app for a user’s phone.
The live stream can also be restricted to certain parts of a concert venue, leaving tech-free sections for purists.
This July, the Boston Symphony Orchestra made its multiscreen performance of Dvorak available in a special, marked-off section of its summer home in Tanglewood.
Susan Hockfield, the former Massachusetts Institute of Technology president who leads the BSO’s media and technology committee, said she was thrilled to conduct the test. She’s just not sure how she felt about the screens.
“One of the reasons I go to concerts is for the intensity of the experience,” she said. “It almost feels like the air vibrates with the music. It’s an experience you don’t get at home, even with a fabulous sound system.”
In that spirit, the Philadelphia Symphony rolled out LiveNote not during a paid, subscription performance, but as a test during its free college night concert held every fall.
The app, which offers a rolling commentary of historic nuggets and musical analysis, emerged after orchestra leaders noticed that students at this annual performance were already clicking around. Why not reach them where they scan?
“This isn’t about giving people something to do to occupy them in the hall,” said Jeremy Rothman, the Philadelphia Symphony’s vice president of artistic planning. “It’s about providing them information to appreciate the music.”
In Verizon Hall that Tuesday night, the music ranged from Leonard Bernstein to Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss to Higdon’s “blue cathedral” tone poem.
According to the orchestra’s own figures, about 20 per cent of the audience connected to the LiveNote stream. Others used their phones to take videos of the action — forbidden, but not enforced — or to text friends and post on Facebook.
Renata Skubutyte, a 30-year-old Temple University pharma-ceutical student, learned about LiveNote from an e-mail from the symphony and downloaded it before entering the hall. Skubutyte goes to a few concerts a season and was eager to try out the new app.
When the lights went up, she gave it a mixed review.
“It’s a cool idea,” she said, “but a bit of a distraction. I would like to come without any gadgets next time and do it old-fashioned.”
“Get the booklet and before the show starts, read about the major pieces,” Skubutyte said. “Then you enjoy and concentrate fully on the music.”