How can classical music reduce its massive carbon footprint in a time of climate crisis? How can singers, instrumentalists and conductors earn a decent living without the need to step on to so many aeroplanes? And has the traditional concert hall had its day? These fundamental questions, which for some years have been turning over in the mind of artist management veteran Jasper Parrott, are now thrown into stark relief by the global Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that has given fresh impetus to the launch of his new venture, Virtual Circle.

Jasper Parrott and Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Kaupo Kikkas

Today, the arrival of another classical music digital platform is hardly news – the pandemic has forced just about every major orchestra, opera company, ensemble and soloist to present their wares to the world online – but on 8th December something that can claim to be genuinely unique will be available: a platform run not by performers but by a team of major music managers.

Since its inception 50 years ago, HarrisonParrott has represented a galaxy of star names in music, with today’s roster including John Adams, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sakari Oramo, Paavo Järvi, Barbara Hannigan, Angela Hewitt and Stephen Hough. Now, in collaboration with eMusic Live, it has created in Virtual Circle a live streaming and digital content platform with several ambitious aims. Parrott, co-founder and executive chairman, is excited at the prospect of offering what he hopes will be a distinctive series of online events that will support performers both artistically and financially.

“We have long wanted to expand both the potential audience and creative possibilities for our artists in a way that would go beyond live performance, without always having to travel around the globe. We believe very much that classical music needs to rethink how it organises itself, and clearly if you can maintain a smaller number of performances in terms of travel and yet grow an audience internationally it seems to me that everybody benefits.”

Virtual Circle is a new, interactive classical music digital platform.
© HarrisonParrott

Virtual Circle aims to provide a concert look and feel and to add value by offering artists the opportunity to sell tickets and promote albums with virtual CD signings. It will also open a space for interaction with performers through moderated chat feeds, special introductory talks and “action buttons”, allowing audiences to learn more about the music they are enjoying and find other content relevant to the performance such as YouTube pages and even artists’ merchandise. 

“We want artists to be paid properly for their performance and also to give them the opportunity to earn from ticket and album sales. I think this devastating period is going to bring about an extraordinary reset, but it also opens up the possibility of bringing creative ideas and creative people together with audiences. We see this as a laboratory for a lot of things that will become much more strongly planted in the general terrain of music and the arts.”

For Virtual Circle to be truly international, Parrott is insistent that it works well in different time zones and languages. “I am very much concerned about the tendency towards isolation in the world, and of course Brexit is not going to be any help at all in this respect. We need to find potent forms of reaching out to compensate for the terrible difficulties that music and the arts are going through.

“We don’t see this as something narrow; we are looking for partners to maintain a continuous flow of customised events, not just limited to music but including collaborations between the art forms. We want to help knit together all the opportunities that have become apparent in the paradox of Covid – there have never been more limiting consequences and yet at the same time it has broken open the glass ceiling of the world in terms of where you can reach.”

He says HarrisonParrott will be seeking out content that is special and different from a wide range of sources. “We should not be so completely overwhelmed by our agency work, vital though that is. We have a role to be editors, opinion leaders, and critics of society in a very positive way. All of this fits into a longer-term vision of what a talent management company can and should be.”

It’s Parrott’s intention that all of his streamed events will have some form of direct moderation. “That’s complicated because we also want to transmit these events in multiple time zones so it will involve different languages. For instance, we already have the possibility of an important transmission from Japan which we hope to get moderated in Japanese.” He eventually aims to have a small group of presenters who will interview the artists and make the audience feel they are participating, but he is aware of the need to strike the right tone, admitting: “Moderation in the concert hall can be a hit-and-miss business and be crashingly boring.” 

Jasper Parrott and Jörg Widmann
© Kaupo Kikkas

One of the opening concerts will give a taste of what is on offer. On 17th December, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard will play works by Beethoven, Messiaen, and Stockhausen and end the concert with a talk about the special insights he gained working directly with both Messiaen and Stockhausen. Aimard's Pentatone recording of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux will also be available for high resolution purchase on the platform.

Virtual Circle will launch on Tuesday 8th December at 7.30pm (in all available time zones) with a concert from the Oslo Philharmonic, celebrating the 155th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius, conducted by Klaus Mäkelä. Other artists set to feature on Virtual Circle include, among others, Manchester Camerata, who will be presenting three concerts in 2021, and the Belgian-based neo-classical ensemble Echo Collective, who will give the digital world premiere of their album The See Within. Concerts are only available on the platform for the length of the concert, keeping true to the concert hall experience. Virtual Circle will also aim to include delayed broadcast concerts, workshops, masterclasses, interviews and album launches.

“We want to encourage our artists to think about adding value by enriching the concert experience. Artists often have half an idea, or the beginnings of an idea, but pressure of live performance has meant they have had to put it to one side. We are trying to find these gems and nuggets of extra value. We don’t have any fixed ideas. An event doesn’t have to take an hour; it could be a series of short happenings in a particular building, for example. I’m very interested in buildings and the atmosphere they can create. I love gardens. I think, for instance, you could have a very different experience sharing music with nature.”

He believes that music should start to consider moving out of traditional concert halls into much more varied and unusual spaces. “We’ve become accustomed to performing spaces that are derivative of 19th-century bourgeois city centres. I’m very much convinced that in the next few years a large percentage of the stock of performing halls, even some glamorous new ones, will not be fit for purpose. They are often the wrong shape, they cost too much to run, and are not compliant with conservation standards and sustainability. One of the other great benefits of Covid is that you can make car parks into concerts hall and maybe sometimes opera houses into something else. This is a great imaginative leap forward. I’m very excited by what they are doing in Manchester in places such as The Factory, which is making a tremendously important contribution to the evolution of the future.”

From left: Jasper Parrott, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Paavo Järvi, Elim Chan and Santtu-Matias Rouvali
© Kaupo Kikkas

So is London making a mistake in building the Centre for Music? “I’m not sufficiently involved in the detail, but I would say that here in one of the great metropolitan centres of the world, where music has such an important role to play with so many incredible artists, it seems to me extraordinary folly that almost all of the provision is centred in a small slice of the pie. About 75% of both inner and outer London has no cultural halls at all and no provision for what could be thriving local centres. In a future world where we do not want people criss-crossing large urban spaces on ever more polluting public transport we do not want the focus to be on one or two central places. It’s a mega problem, not just for concert halls, but for museums and galleries, too.

“One of the great challenges for governments of the next 10 to 20 years, and indeed for the Mayor of London, will be to find ways to democratise access to performance and educational spaces for the creative arts in a much wider complex across London, and indeed the whole country.”

This all ties in with the announcement last month of the partnership between Google Arts & Culture and the HarrisonParrott Foundation which aims to allow greater accessibility to the arts through the digital world. The Foundation says: “As passionate advocates for innovation, we want to challenge the idea that ethnicity, gender, disability and social background are impediments to full inclusivity – we believe everyone deserves access to the arts. We want to challenge preconceived assumptions of what the arts are and who they are for.”

Parrott says he is not an ideologue when it comes to performance space. “Most of the new halls offer a wonderful experience and many of them have irreplaceable value, but there is an enormous amount to be achieved in other spaces. With imagination, music can be done almost anywhere, in a converted power station, a school, a ruin. It will be a very important stage if we can get people to feel through Virtual Circle that great music can take place in a huge variety of different places.”

This article was sponsored by HarrisonParrott.