When I surveyed the musical landscape back in September, I didn’t really need a crystal ball to claim that “streaming is clearly going to be part of our cultural lives for some time to come”. Since then, a number of orchestras and venues have entered the digital arena, mostly in countries where live audiences have been prohibited, or severely limited in number. As editor, many streams have come my way. Bachtrack has published over 200 such reviews since June and I’ve watched a fair number of them myself. So how do you stand out in such a competitive market? What do you offer audiences beyond pointing cameras and microphones at musicians in an empty room? Here are some examples of “best practice” that have impressed me. 


Lights!

The London Philharmonic has definitely set out to bring something different from the usual concert experience to your electronic devices. Shot in widescreen in the Royal Festival Hall, their concerts are dramatically lit, almost to sci-fi film level. Beam me up, Sir Mark! 

Sir Mark Elder and the LPO under the spotlights © London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder and the LPO under the spotlights
© London Philharmonic Orchestra

The most dramatic use of lighting I’ve seen was a concert performance of Bluebeard’s Castle from TivoliVredenburg in July. Henk-Jan van Beek’s lighting design drenched the stage with colour as each door opened. Allied to close, low camera angles, which gave a claustrophobic feel, it was a lot more dramatic than some opera house stagings.

Rinat Shaham, Gábor Bretz, Karina Canellakis and the NRPO © Avrotros
Rinat Shaham, Gábor Bretz, Karina Canellakis and the NRPO
© Avrotros


Camera!

Live-streamed orchestral concerts are relatively new in the UK and I’m afraid it often shows. Pre-corona, only the London Symphony Orchestra used to regularly broadcast its concerts online, but even they have had to get used to filming in LSO St Luke’s rather than the Barbican. Many orchestras are similarly locked out of their usual venues and much of the filming is quite basic with limited camera angles and, in some cases, a maximum video resolution of 720p. The Berlin Philharmonic and Swedish orchestras such as the Gothenburg Symphony and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic have much more experience of streaming their content. The Berliners' Digital Concert Hall is still the standard bearer and, in the stream I watched the other weekend, they seem to have solved the awkwardness of maintaining concert etiquette in an empty hall – no self-conscious bowing, but they opened on the Philharmonie in darkness, gradually raising the lights to reveal players, soloist and conductor already in place ready to begin the concerto. 

Daniel Barenboim conducts the Berlin Philharmonic © Monika Rittershaus
Daniel Barenboim conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus


Action! Using technology to bring performers together 

Three examples stand out. Lockdown prevented Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson travelling to the Bergen International Festival in May, so rather than cancel, he pre-recorded his solo part in Grieg’s Piano Concerto in Reykjavík’s Harpa Hall which was then beamed into the Grieghallen, conductor Ed Gardner wired up to a click-track to coordinate the Bergen Philharmonic’s supporting role. At a time when travel restrictions and quarantine are scuppering plans left, right and centre, is anyone else investigating this solution?

Víkingur Ólafsson is beamed into the Grieghallen © Bergen International Festival
Víkingur Ólafsson is beamed into the Grieghallen
© Bergen International Festival

With social distancing meaning opera orchestras cannot squeeze into the pit – unless you’re playing a reduction – how do you perform at full strength? Some houses have ripped out the stalls seating and either located the orchestra there or plonked the orchestra on stage and used the stalls as the stage instead. Zurich Opera did something completely different. Its orchestra and chorus performed in a rehearsal studio a kilometre down the road from the Opernhaus, where their contributions were beamed into the house for engineers to balance and blend the sound. It may have been a less satisfactory solution for the audience in the house, but via Zurich’s streaming it was a mightily impressive feat.

<i>Boris Godunov</i> at Zurich Opera © Monika Rittershaus
Boris Godunov at Zurich Opera
© Monika Rittershaus

Another ridiculously impressive feat was VOPERA, stitching together a huge cast – posting in their remotely recorded contributions – with the LPO and animating the whole thing for a magical virtual reality version of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges.

Sarah Hayashi (Fire) in <i>L’Enfant et les sortilèges</i> © VOPERA
Sarah Hayashi (Fire) in L’Enfant et les sortilèges
© VOPERA


Imagination 

There have been many examples of adapting repertoire to fit performance restrictions, but few have done it as boldly – or as wittily – as Finnish National Opera. Due to open their season with a new production of Die Walküre, we see Esa-Pekka Salonen launch into its furious prelude, only for the performance to be interrupted by an “interface manager” who instructs the “little guy in the pit” to play Mozart instead. Covid fan tutte repurposes the score to a series of corona-based sketches, often funny, but sometimes poignant too, such as when “Ferrando” serenades his mother below her balcony because she’s shielding and they cannot meet in person. Karita Mattila steals the show, sending herself up as a star diva forced to slum it at the local house because her international engagements have all been scrapped.

Karita Mattila in <i>Covid fan tutte</i> © Finnish National Opera
Karita Mattila in Covid fan tutte
© Finnish National Opera


Creating that festival feel

The Donizetti Festival in Bergamo staged two productions in the stalls along with a concert performance of Belisario and a closing gala concert. But subscribers could also watch rehearsal footage, interviews and lively foyer chats that gave it a sense of occasion and made it feel as if you were almost there.

Foyer chat – and drinks – in Bergamo © Donizetti Opera
Foyer chat – and drinks – in Bergamo
© Donizetti Opera

Oxford Lieder took a very early decision to go ahead with an online festival at a time when other organisations were sitting on their hands. It offered the full experience – not just recitals but the full complement of illustrated lectures and related events. 

Sheer commitment 

In classical music’s darkest hour in the UK, John Gilhooly at Wigmore Hall has kept the flame burning. When lockdown was released on 1st June, live recitals were streamed into our homes. As soon as audiences were permitted again, Wigmore Hall opened its doors first. In excellent sound and sensitive video direction (the hall has its own remotely operated cameras) it offers a model of how to present chamber music and song on screen. 

The Nash Ensemble © Wigmore Hall
The Nash Ensemble
© Wigmore Hall


Location, location, location

Locked out of their usual Koch Theater, New York City Ballet made practical use of the outdoor spaces around Lincoln Center to give premieres of five works choreographed with pandemic restrictions in mind. Works included Solo for Russell: Sites 1-5 by Pam Tanowitz and NYCB’s own resident choreographer Justin Peck’s Thank You, New York, “a piece d’occasion that also had artistic merit” according to our reviewer.

Emily Kikta of NYCB in Sidra Bell’s <i>pixelation in a wave (Within Wires)</i> © Erin Baiano
Emily Kikta of NYCB in Sidra Bell’s pixelation in a wave (Within Wires)
© Erin Baiano

Another stream that took performers into unusual places was Da Camera of Houston’s presentation of Sarah Rothenberg playing Morton Feldman’s Palais de mari in a gallery of ancient antiquties in the Menil Collection. 

Subtitles 

You can’t always take subtitles for granted in opera streams, but nobody does it as well as the Wiener Staatsoper – there’s a choice of German, English, Italian, French, Japanese or Russian. Or you can just turn them off altogether. Classy. 

Downloadable programme notes 

Many organisations offer programme notes, but the Bavarian RSO, Bournemouth Symphony, Philadelphia and Philharmonia Orchestras have been among the best I’ve seen. Top marks to Oxford Lieder for offering downloadable texts and translations of all their song recitals. 

Presentation 

Having a presenter to introduce the performance is a calculated risk, as some talk far too much, keen to show they’ve done their musicology homework. Presentation is a specialist skill and it’s no surprise that BBC Radio 3 presenters do it best: Martin Handley and Sarah Walker are informative, but friendly on the Bournemouth Symphony’s streams, while Georgia Mann and the urbane Petroc Trelawney really gave a sense of what the occasion meant at Wigmore Hall, particularly in those early summer lunchtime recitals without any audience. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Idagio’s Global Concert Hall also run Q&A sessions after their streams. Franz Welser-Möst answered my question at the end of his matinee concert in the Musikverein.

Joana Mallwitz introduces Schubert's C major at the Konzerthaus © Martin Walz
Joana Mallwitz introduces Schubert's C major at the Konzerthaus
© Martin Walz

If you are going to take the music apart and put it back together again, who better than the conductor to guide us? Joana Mallwitz, making her debut with the Konzerthausorchester Berlin last week, spent half an hour exploring Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony with musical examples from the orchestra before a full (and very fine) performance.