Thursday, December 18, 2008

High Definition Classics Berlin Style

According to a London Telegraph report, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic are ready to enter the age of Internet-based performance:

As of January, the Philharmonic' performances recorded with five high definition digital cameras will be broadcast via live stream on the internet with a CD-like sound quality.

Music lovers around the world will be able to either watch the full concerts of the celebrated orchestra or just selected passages though a so-called Digital Concert Hall application on the Berlin Philharmonic website.

Sir Simon, the orchestra's famous chief conductor, said the move was motivated by a wish to address a wider audience across the world. He said: "When the idea of the Digital Concert Hall occurred to us, I was immediately certain that this is the way of the future.

"I believe it is a marvellous thing for both the orchestra and the public.

"And it is a wonderful feeling to be able to welcome far more people to the Philharmonic than before."

The fees for the so-called digital "tickets" will range from 9.9 euros for a single concert to 149 euros for the entire season's performances. An access to archive recordings is already available as video-on-demand as of Thursday on and users will also be able to view some of the orchestra's rehearsals.

It will be interesting to see how this experiment progresses. While I still prefer the Metropolitan Opera model of a high definition broadcast to something more like a "hall," rather than to individual user screens, I still believe that we learn from all experiments, even (particularly?) the ones that do not turn out as we had anticipated. For a similar reason I was also glad to read in this report that the Berlin Philharmonic would be participating in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra experiment.

My primary misgiving is one of bandwidth management. I tried listening to a streaming audio recording of a Proms concert available from the BBC Web site. The damned connection just kept dying on me, and that was not a good thing since I was trying to listen to a symphony by Gustav Mahler! The Wagner Society of Northern California had a similar problem with a group viewing of a live video stream from Bayreuth this past summer. My guess is that these projects are going to work best when you have a good supply-and-demand model for estimating your bandwidth requirements. It is one thing to ask for movie theaters to subscribe and quite another to ask the same of individuals. The number of individuals is likely to exceed the number of movie theaters by several orders of magnitude and will not be as consistent. Even if the symphony is by Johannes Brahms, rather than Mahler, I do not want to pay a subscription fee only to risk the breakdown of this past summer's "virtual Bayreuth" experience; but I would pay a higher fee (possibly the same currently charged for Met transmissions) to have the experience in a movie theater, particularly one with a track record of managing connections to the Met.

Then there is the question of the video itself. As I continue to insist, the concert experience is only as good as the quality of video direction. Thus far the video broadcasting of Met performances has been in good hands. Having never seen a DVD of the Berlin Philharmonic, I do not know what to expect by way of camera work. So, as I say, this is an experiment that needs to be tracked; but I suspect that I shall not be an "early adopter!"


Anonymous said...

Dear Stephen,

Many thanks for your detailed review of the digital concert hall.

I completely agree with you concerning the importance of video direction. It can most definitely either make or break an experience... and we are working very hard on making your experience a marvellous one. Our (sound and video) directors prepare each recording over two nights before it is then transmitted live, thus ensuring optimum quality for our viewers.

You can see excerpts at

If you enjoy your experience visit us at where you can watch pieces for as little as 3€.

And if you have any questions, just email me at:

I am very much looking forward to your feedback.

All the best,


Stephen Smoliar said...


Thank you for your kind comments and for providing readers with the URLs. This was only a preview article. I decided to spring for a Season Pass and plan to write further about the experience of both live and archived material. One of my more recent
actually alluded to the "hazard" of watching the archived concert by Gustavo Dudamel (in its entirety) on the afternoon prior to attending Nicola Luisotti debut with the San Francisco Symphony!

To respond quickly to your comment about video direction, thus far I have been far more than satisfied! The camera work on the Dudamel concert was excellent enough that I would recommend this to anyone seeking a "first taste" of the Digital Concert Hall. I was also very impressed with Haitink conducting the Mahler seventh, since this was my first opportunity to actually see the tenor tuba being played! Be forewarned, however, that the big test I have in mind will be the archive recording of Messiaen's "Turangalila!"

Anonymous said...

Dear Stephen,

I am excited to hear you have signed up!

Have we passed our Turangalila test?

All the best,