Philadelphia Orchestra On Demand: Late to the game, but improving

This time, the Philadelphia Orchestra is opening its archives for love, not money - and the results are so much better.

Although the orchestra has had a fitful digital presence in the past, 30 of its WRTI-FM broadcasts, plus older concerts dating back to the Wolfgang Sawallisch era, are newly available for a mere click of the On Demand tab - for a reasonable charge.

On www.philorch.org, anybody can preview audio and video of music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the orchestra in Hong Kong last spring in a characteristic program of the Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. The rest sits just out of reach - with an elegant padlock. Unlocking it requires a $50 donation good for the next 12 months. Those already part of the orchestra family have log-ins and passwords that are the keys to the kingdom without an extra charge.

"This is to engage patron loyalty and to take down boundaries between our music and those who care for it," orchestra president and CEO Allison Vulgamore said.

"We have Yannick's entire tenure and want to make it available through our site," said Ryan Fleur, executive vice president of orchestra advancement. "We haven't designed this to be the be-all-and-end-all. The deeper connection with listeners is more important than perfect functionality."

The web pages do feel unfinished and have their quirks. The individual concerts are designed to be heard all the way through - announcements, interviews, and all. Those who want to access a particular piece on the program must move the "progress bar indicator" to the right and make a rough estimate of where the desired piece lies in the file. Printed timings - indeed, more printed instructions and indicators - could help listeners find what they want.

The goal is to have 75 audio and video concerts, and ones that won't be taken down after a year's time. As a historic-recording buff, Fleur would love to have broadcasts dating to Leopold Stokowski's return engagements in the 1960s. For now, broadcasts will be posted after their WRTI airings. Might they seem like a rerun?

As someone who follows the WRTI broadcasts casually - despite being a sometime contributor of 90-second features to the arts desk - I think the recordings indeed accommodate repeat visits. The tapes are owned and recorded by the orchestra with a staff that generally seems to know how to get the best out of Verizon Hall.

Thanks to the crucial post-production stage, the sound quality is far better than the downloads posted on Amazon.com (among other places) in early 2010. Those recordings - from Nézet-Séguin's Mahler Symphony No. 5 to Sawallisch's Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 to Rossen Milanov's Brahms Symphony No. 1 - often sound as black and white as the photos on the album covers and fail to convey the special Philadelphia sound.

Heard on the Philadelphia Orchestra website, the newly posted recordings are near-CD quality. In contrast to the tight frame on Amazon, these new postings have a sonic perspective surrounded by air and light. Of course, you don't have the immediacy of the live concerts. But even the obvious visceral value in Christopher Rouse's percussion concerto Der Gerettete Alberich does just fine when heard and not seen.

On the subtler side, Rudolf Buchbinder's use of rubato in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor is easily missed in concert but adds greatly to the depth of the performance when heard on the website. The underlying buzz of the French horns in the finale of Mozart's Symphony No. 39 might not be audible at all, depending on your Verizon Hall seat, but it is good to hear online.

Bach's St. Matthew Passion is problematic, if only because orchestra, vocal soloists, and multiple choirs inevitably cover a lot of Verizon Hall real estate. Though the balances aren't bad in the recording, they show the engineers making the best of a preconceived configuration of musicians.

Some performances would be scaled back for the microphone if the setting were a formal commercial recording. Camilla Nylund is heard pushing her voice to reach the upper balcony during Strauss' Salome in ways that seem overwhelming at home. Ditto for bass Sergei Leiferkus and his invasive vibrato in the broadcast of Rachmaninoff's The Bells.

Such are the pluses and minuses of the medium. On a purely musical level, The Bells - a setting of the Edgar Allan Poe poem - is an engineering triumph with orchestral effects vividly rendered. But having sections of the poem read between movements plays badly in a sound-only medium. Some editing, please?

Already, one of the shorter all-Mozart programs with Nézet-Séguin and pianist Jan Lisiecki has been augmented by an extra performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 from a few years previous. Sawallisch admirers will want to hear his Beethoven/Hindemith program - one of his last in Philadelphia. But the microphones don't lie, exposing the ailing maestro's slack rhythms and sleepy tempos in Beethoven's Symphony No. 1.

So though there's plenty of musical value, what is the convenience of On Demand worth? Concertgoers are used to living on other people's schedules, and although you make those appointments with the Philadelphia Orchestra happily, the events of your day can't help having an impact, and not always a good one. Also, I also believe in the value of hearing the concert of your choice in the company of a household pet that would never be allowed in the concert hall.

The Metropolitan Opera has opened its archive of 575 operas - from radio broadcasts of 1935 to HD videos of recent seasons - for $14.99 a month, or $149 a year, for non-members. The industry model is the Berlin Philharmonic's video-dominated Digital Concert Hall. It charges about $22.09 a month, or about $165.39 per year. So the Philadelphia Orchestra's $50 charge is relatively reasonable. When the system is operating at full capacity, the average cost will be about $0.60 a concert.

Why charge anything if making money isn't a priority? The answer is partly union regulations. But I believe money creates a sense of imperative. When I subscribe to the Berlin Phil, I do so in short increments of a month because that creates a foreseeable deadline for accessing the music. Anything free is taken for granted. And there's value in being able to say the Philadelphia Orchestra's On Demand feature is one of the best deals in town.

dstearns@phillynews.com

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