If you like to keep tabs on what the great orchestras of the world are up to, as I do, you probably have a few tabs open on your browser. Medici TV, Marquee TV, the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall… there is no shortage of destination sites. Almost too many, in fact. What if you could open a single site, and choose from the latest concerts by The Cleveland Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and more?

Symphony.live homepage
© Symphony Media

That’s the idea behind Symphony.live. Right now you can head there to watch a thrilling Eroica given late in November by the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer, paired in typically illuminating fashion with a provocative call to action by Louis Andriessen, Workers Union. You know something out of the ordinary is about to happen when the BFO percussionists take to the stage wearing hard hats and start bashing empty vodka bottles. Fischer wanders on after a while, walks around nodding and smiling, apparently surplus to requirements.

If you want to find out how a symphony orchestra can reinvent itself in the 21st century, the Budapest Festival Orchestra is an ideal place to start. But maybe you’re after something less confrontational. With two clicks you’re in Cleveland, where over the last two decades Franz Welser-Möst has established an Old World rapport with his New World players. Together they bring extraordinary polish and finesse to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, taking no prisoners from the outset by dispensing with some of the trappings of overwrought grandeur which the piece has accumulated over the last half-century and pulling out every last detail from Mahler’s intricate score.

These are not performances you will find on YouTube, and they are performances worth paying for – just as you would buy a ticket if you were in Budapest or Cleveland. Unlike the other subscription sites listed above, however, Symphony.live has an ace up its sleeve. Both concerts are topped and tailed from an Amsterdam studio by the presenter Tommy Pearson and Dominic Seldis, with experts discussing the event, pulling out the nuances of the interpretation as if they were discussing a goal or a VAR decision after Liverpool vs Barcelona.

Rob Overman
© Symphony Media

This is the dream of Symphony.live’s co-founder Rob Overman: “to create a kind of Champions League in a Netflix model for the best symphony orchestras in the world.” Fighting talk, you might think. But Overman brings experience to the table. He left musicology and the halls of Dutch academe 30 years ago to work in the hard-nosed world of orchestral management, running first the Orkest de Volharding (founded by Andriessen in the 60s) and then the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Rotterdam Philharmonic.

“It was a fantastic time,” says Overman, “when I learnt a lot about the repertoire, and about the audience. I was always listening to them, asking them what they liked about the programmes. But I realised at that point that we were spending a budget of 30-40 million euros in order to attract 200,000 tickets from 40,000 unique ticket buyers, because they buy subscriptions. And I thought, we must be able to do more.”

So, in the late 2000s, Overman went into the more precarious world of online media, learning the hard way how to monetise what we all felt like we could take for free at that point. He started up Monteverdi TV, and it failed after three years – “it was like going back to school. Everything was too complicated. So then I went into classical music TV with a satellite channel, Brava, in 2009. That was doing 24/7 linear programming of classical music. And Brava went so well that we started a jazz channel and a festival channel. But we gradually realised that people didn’t want linear programming any more.”

“Symphony Insiders” commentary strand
© Symphony Media

A search for an on-demand model of classical music programming eventually led Overman to his co-founder, Henk Bout, who has been setting up specialist TV channels for the last 20 years. And when he approached the boards of ensembles on both sides of the Atlantic, he found he was pushing at an open door. After all, in an increasingly stormy cultural climate, not every orchestra (for which read: none of them) has pockets deep enough or sponsors generous enough to set up their own bells-and-whistles online channel like the Digital Concert Hall in Berlin.

“Perhaps that’s because we came along at the right time,” reflects Overman. “All the orchestras were effectively closed at that point [in mid-2020], because of the pandemic. They couldn’t communicate with their fans. All they could do to keep things alive was to start filming, on a very small scale to begin with, creating quartets and quintets and then chamber-orchestra groups. And they found out that this is a fantastic tool to communicate with their fans. But they also found out that they aren’t specialised in technology, or online marketing, or content creation or story-telling. So we were lucky. We came along at the right time. And I haven’t talked to a single orchestra which has said no yet.”

Simon Rattle on Symphony.live
© Symphony Media

The synthesis of live and on-demand material is an experimental model, designed to tap in to the tenacious niche in the market for event broadcasting, exemplified in the UK by the success of Bake-Off and Strictly. “We agreed with the orchestras they would do all the filming – in their own way, in their own style, because classical music can be boring on film – but with lots of context, interviews with the conductor, the soloists, the audience in the hall. We call it Symphony Night Live, broadcast every Saturday night. It is filmed in advance, because to make all that happen actually live is impossible. They film the concert, the context around it, and they deliver us a complete product, with interval features. And we add things from our Amsterdam studio: specialist storytellers who talk about the concert, like football pundits in the studio. This isn’t easy for orchestras, it’s new.”

Just as Bachtrack attracts the kind of travelling visitor who just wants to know what’s on in a city they’re visiting next week, so Symphony.live is aimed at a market much larger than the aficionados – though not excluding them, either. According to Overman’s numbers, 4% of consumers in the “Western” (US/European) world are aficionados, who would rather listen to classical than any other kind of music. Then there are two further tiers of listeners, who would say they like classical music, and they amount to 500 million listeners. That’s quite an audience – and an attractive pot of disposable income. “When I started my media career,” says Overman, “we didn’t have access to any of them. Now we have access to around 60 or 70% of them through social media. Fifteen years ago, technology was my worst enemy. Now it’s my best friend.”

Many performances on offer
© Symphony Media

The proof comes in the viewing, and the content of Symphony.live is available to stream free for 14 days before the monthly £9.99 subscription fee kicks in. If all the site offered was concerts broadcast in the last few months, its library would look rather thin, so the partner orchestras – ten and counting – have supplied access to many older films. Some of these are available on other platforms such as Medici, but again not on any free platform such as Arte or the kind of own-brand “mediatheks” hosted by several orchestras in northern Europe.

The attraction, for Overman, has to be exclusivity. “Take the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. They have been active in media for ten years. They have their digital concert hall and all the learnings behind it. Their Play platform is overwhelmingly watched by Swedish audiences. They make it available for free, and they do that because they want to give everyone in Sweden the opportunity to have a return on their tax investment in culture. And this is a good model.”

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic on Symphony.live
© Symphony Media

“The four productions per season they will do for Symphony are exclusive” Overman continues, “and accessible to a wider audience, with good stories behind them.” So far they include Welser-Möst guest-directing Bruckner’s Ninth, and a treasured visit from a much-loved native, Herbert Blomstedt, who at 95 is the world’s oldest working maestro, leading astonishingly vital accounts of Honegger and Brahms, and chatting away with his audience from the podium.

Cracking the US orchestral scene has long been a pipedream for media organisations outside it, who have had to contend with the serious muscle exerted by its labour unions. Having worked inside orchestras himself, Overman understands the issue from both sides of the glass. As he notes, unions used to be focused on broadcast and recording rights – especially TV, where there was a lot of money to be made from state-financed stations. But when those stations withdrew from broadcasting classical music, the size of the market (and the available fees) diminished considerably.

Budapest Festival Orchestra performing Andriessen’s Workers Union
© Symphony Media

Newer online models are all based on revenue share, where there is little or no money for the time being. “So for the unions, in the US in particular, it’s a challenge. But it’s in the interest of the musicians to be in this new world. European orchestras solved these problems years ago: media rights including the internet are already written into their contracts. In the US, and in Canada, they have not yet reached that point. But they know if they don’t join platforms like Symphony or Medici, they will miss the boat. We have a revenue share model. If we don’t make money, there’s nothing to share. And if we do make money, we share it.”

Even more insular, in terms of access and rights, is the lucrative Asian market. Audiences for classical music in Japan, for example, have held up where they have declined across the globe during the last few decades. The language barrier is one issue, as Overman admits: “What can you do to produce Asian content? It’s hard and expensive.” Orchestras in Japan and South Korea are high up on his wishlist, “because they are quite European. But we have no idea about the Chinese market or Singapore or Indonesia.”

Documentaries are also included on the platform
© Symphony Media

Subscribers to Symphony.live can expect to find twelve partner orchestras on the site from the new year onwards. From the start of the 2024–25 season, the plan is to add two or three more orchestras every quarter. For now though, there are riches aplenty already available, and the prospect of much more: Dvořák with Rattle, Kožená and the Czech Philharmonic. Nights from New York, Los Angeles and Montreal.

Meanwhile, older listeners who remember the days when the Concertgebouw’s Christmas Day concert was broadcast on TV across Europe (even the UK) can enjoy more recent “Kerstmatinee” concerts from Amsterdam, including the late Mariss Jansons in Beethoven and Mahler symphonies, Daniel Barenboim playing Brahms’ First Piano Concerto – and, yes, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

This interview was sponsored by Symphony Media.