The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra planned to spend March of 2020 crisscrossing the United States on a multi-city tour. Instead, they spent it performing on YouTube. It was a pandemic pivot that proved fortuitous, seeding plans for a virtual concert series that has brought the respected Dutch orchestra into the homes of listeners around the globe.

Lahav Shani
© Karen van Gilst

The idea was born as a quick fix, remembers Floris Don, the Orchestra’s manager of artistic affairs. “We were supposed to fly on Friday the 13th of March 2020 – so that was a bad omen,” Don says with a laugh. “We were still rehearsing on Tuesday morning of that week. China was already in lockdown and the Northern part of Italy had serious problems, but we were still rehearsing and preparing for this tour. On Wednesday, just one day after, like a house of cards it all just collapsed. Former President Donald Trump issued the travel ban from European countries and this American tour that was years in the making just did not happen.”

Sent home to wait out a pandemic with no end in sight, musicians of the Rotterdam Phil decided to temper their disappointment with determination and provide a pick-me-up for audiences who also found themselves unable to enjoy the live concert experience. On 20th March 2020 – exactly one week after they were meant to fly to the States – the players recorded a moving rendition of the Finale from Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 in D minor, the famous “Ode to Joy”. It proved to be exactly what the world needed: to date, it’s been viewed more than 3 million times.

“This now all sounds very familiar, but back then, we were basically the first orchestra to come up with the idea of connecting people from their living rooms,” explains Don. “It reached CNN and even Oprah Winfrey, and it went viral like crazy. This was a crazy adventure that we found ourselves in. To put it in perspective: I think the American tour would have been fantastic for the exposure, but we would never have made it to Oprah Winfrey. And this small video that we made, all stuck in our own houses... that for us opened up so many new possibilities.”

Floris Don
© Oscar Seijkens
The plan was never to go viral, Don tells me. “We very much made it in support of a Rotterdam-based group of people,” he says. “It was a collaboration with a Rotterdam company and we wanted to do something for the community – to say, ‘here’s a little comfort, have four minutes of music-making together.’ Of course, this idea that music is a source of solace in a time of need is a very universal concept. Something like that hits home everywhere in the world.”

Even as audiences are returning to in-person events in Rotterdam, the possibilities sprouted by that first viral video have germinated into a new series of ten online concerts, including three livestreams. This new digital series will debut on 20th November with a set of three new programs: Andrés Orozco-Estrada leads Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist; chief conductor Lahav Shani trades his baton for the piano bench, accompanying baritone Matthias Goerne in a song recital; and François-Xavier Roth conducts a program spanning from Bach to Schoenberg. 

The company has learned a lot about the process of digital presentation over the past 18 months, according to Don. Factors are often controlled by whatever coronavirus restrictions are in place at the time of filming. The first round of concerts, streamed in February and March 2021, included Goerne singing Alphons Diepenbrock’s Im grossen Schweigen, Shani conducting Brahms’ First Symphony and Shostakovich’s Ninth, and Daniel Barenboim performing Chopin’s First Piano Concerto.

“This year is the Diepenbrock year – he died in 1921,” Don says. “Usually local composers tend to stay a bit local, but this was a great opportunity to present Diepenbrock to a wider audience, through the beautiful voice of the famous Matthias Goerne. Luckily we were able to save this particular program, but the biggest hassle was how to fit all the instruments onstage once we were allowed back. This was very difficult, because Diepenbrock has a very large orchestral size. We had to impose the one-and-a-half-meter distance between the strings and two meters for the winds, which was a huge challenge. That really did not make things more easy, but it’s a good example of where Lahav and Matthias joined forces to present one of the great artists from the Dutch musical heritage.”

A full performance of Beethoven’s Ninth may have been a natural choice, but it presented its own set of challenges. “We chose the venue Ahoy, which is a huge pop music venue normally,” Don says. “This was the only venue in Rotterdam large enough to have space for a full orchestra, a full chorus and vocal soloists. It was one of the first times the Orchestra came back together at this size, which was a very special moment.”

In addition to bringing music to a wider audience, Don praises the potential for more intimate connections between the artists that filmed concerts allow. Conductors like Shani and soloists like Kavakos, for example, can join together with members of the Orchestra for chamber quartets, or opera superstars like Goerne can present themselves with reflective performances of Schubert and Mahler songs. “Online works very well for this because you can get very close to the musicians and have a certain intimacy, especially on the screen with all the closeups,” Don says. “With Goerne, you can see all the expressions on his face – it’s a wonderful visual addition to what you’d normally hear in the concert hall from a larger distance.”

The learning curve of the digital concert world extends beyond COVID protocols. “In the example of Beethoven Nine in Ahoy, we used a drone in some of the tutti shots,” Don explains. “Of course, you cannot use a drone in a live performance with an audience. But this is something we still need to explore, because it is simply too cool not to use again!

“Suddenly, of course, we paid much more attention to the videos,” Don continues. “When we worked with different teams, we learned that some people may have more affinity from the camera standpoint with certain repertoire. There are some people who work very well at making more analytic videos that are very complicated in terms of the score. But there are other people who have a sensitive approach and focus on how orchestra members interact without words. They may even do a close-up on an orchestra member who is not playing but is maybe smiling at something he hears another member play. We suddenly noticed that each director has their own personality.” 

Well, film is a director’s medium, after all.

Don expects that Rotterdam will continue to offer a slate of streaming concerts in the future, even as matters inside the hall return to a sense of normalcy. This will include filming live performances in front of an audience for future release. “We learned a lot during the lockdown period in terms of creativity, but what was lacking was the atmosphere,” he says. “We really want to have the concert with the audience inside, because it helps so much – especially if you can be at home and have the feeling you’re watching something with a lot of atmosphere. The most important lesson is that when we are making the video, the people at home need to feel like what we are creating is especially for them.”

Click here to watch the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra digital concerts.

This article was sponsored by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra