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The Third Golden Age Begins?: Welcome to the Berliner Philharmoniker

And French orchestras? Maybe it’s like what Freud said of women: What do French orchestras really want? But I digress.

In the golden days of radio the great symphony orchestras of the world broadcast over short and long wave bands, creating pockets of listeners all over the globe. In isolated Japan in the 1940s the young composer Toru Takemitsu learned the ways of Western music from the Armed Forces radio network. In Maine, Charles Ives listened to the premiere of his 2nd Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, over the radio.

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When FM came in after the Second World War, sound quality improved, but the since the range of FM is limited to line-of-sight, those millions of listeners lucky enough to get an ionosphere bounce from New York to Vermont or Chicago to Colorado were left in silence. The advent of the long-playing record took the thrill and necessity away from live broadcasts, and radio audiences shrank.

Then came the golden age of television, with new operas commissioned for the medium, and Leonard Bernstein’s 53 Young People’s Concerts broadcast live to the entire nation. But with astonishing speed, the medium was subjected to raw market forces and the inexorable drive to the lowest common denominator. Television went from golden age to Newton Minnow’s “vast wasteland” in less than two decades.

Now we are in the early days of a new medium — high definition broadcasts over the Internet. The pioneer here is Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic offering a complete season ticket for €149, or single month passes to their Digital Concert Hall. The premiere concert August 28 was priced at a special €5, and you can still order it and watch it as many times as you want during any 48 hour period.

The overall experience was riveting. Video quality is superb, and the sound is good. First up was Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, something Sir Simon must have conducted a few thousand times in Birmingham for young audiences. This was an adult version, a chance for Berlin to show off their shimmering strings and brass, and warm reeds. A delight. Next was the premiere of a new work, Laterna Magica by Kaija Saariaho, a mysterious and exciting mélange of ear candy that benefited hugely by video. At one point we heard voices in a whisper, as if a chorus was behind the orchestra, but suddenly we could see that the voices were from anyone not busy playing at the moment. The players were a chorus for a few moments, a stunning surprise, effective, moving. A real treat was seeing the composer herself up on stage at the end, bravoed by audience and orchestra. We knew then that this was a performance that the composer herself had a hand in and we had heard it the way she wanted us to.

Before the final piece we created our own intermission by hitting ‘pause’ and took a little strudel break here in Tiburon while our server in Berlin cooled its heels. We then launched the final piece, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. This was a decidedly un-opiated performance, with Rattle and the Berliners going for warmth, and ensemble, leaving the madness for others to explore. Still, every moment kept our rapt attention. This can never be the same as a live experience, but it is deeply satisfying, authentic in its own way.

Quibbles: the sound. I’m guessing that the miking is a single Blumlein pair somewhere fairly far back in the hall, giving preference to that nice warm Berlin sound, but a loss of detail that in a record-only world might be barely okay. When the camera is hovering over a piano or celeste keyboard and you can’t for the life of you hear the instrument, you almost feel as if the whole ensemble is lip-synching. Orchestra balance is pretty good, but the double basses are considerably underbalanced and out of focus. My biggest complaint is lack of dynamics. Either someone’s got a heavy hand on the compressor, or the distant miking is the cause. Probably a little of both. Since Berlin offers viewers a choice of video definition, maybe they could do the same for audio. Compressed or not? Your choice.

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Video direction: directors of all kinds generally adopt an imaginary proscenium and keep their camera angles consistently on one side of that proscenium. It keeps the audience from getting disoriented and woozy. The exception in orchestra protocol is the conductor camera, which does indeed jump across the proscenium line, and we all get used to it. In the Britten, the video director tried using the conductor camera for the first harp solo. Whoops! Suddenly the harpist appears to have gone from the left side of the orchestra to the right, and the shot shows the harpist looking from right to left toward the conductor. My wife almost had to leave the room for a few tense moments.

Over the entire concert, certain players and sections were not covered at all. The cellos were barely seen. There was no sense of the natural ensemble of the first desk string players, although there certainly was of the woodwinds. The director failed to let us know the complete forces on stage for any given piece, so in the Berlioz there’s a whole lot of percussion battery being deployed, but if you didn’t know what a bass drum sounded like, or a gong or cymbal, there was no visual cue to understand how important they were in driving a particular moment. And, not to be overly critical, but there didn’t seem to be deep knowledge of any of the scores driving the director’s choices. Coverage was a little more like what one might expect at a sporting event than a concert where everyone should know what’s going to happen next. The director did seem to have something of a jones for one back-of-the-section fiddler, though.

Sir Simon Rattle, judging by a lengthy interview that followed the concert, seems to be the driving force behind this magnificent venture, and he is to be congratulated for his leadership off the podium. And as for his day job, he is a musician’s conductor, never showboating for the sake of the audience, giving the orchestra the absolute minimum of what they need and sometimes even a little bit less, so that the ensemble really needs to listen to each other. This is serious, perfectionist, music making of the highest order.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s personality was consistent throughout the concert, and I’ll be eager to see and hear more of them in the coming months. They are a real ensemble, making a beautiful sound together, never forcing, always going to lushness. They present a fascinating contrast with the great American orchestra like Cleveland or the Met, where clarity, transparency and dynamics are prized. And Berlin is distinct from the British orchestras (we’ve been listening to a lot of Proms) which rely on a lot of enthusiasm and individual musicianship. And French orchestras? Maybe it’s like what Freud said of women: What do French orchestras really want? But I digress.

Are we at a new Golden Age of the arts with the arrival of a new media? The Web has shuffled the deck for everything else, from exchange of knowledge to shopping. I hope that the Digital Concert Hall will be remembered ten year from now as the brilliant beginning of a great cultural revolution that revolutionized the diffusion all the performing arts, and not as a shining example of a Golden Age that never reached fulfillment.