Tchaikovsky, meet Hubble: Classical concerts look to tech, bold strokes to lure crowds

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Composer Paola Prestini's "Hubble Cantata" at Prospect Park in Brooklyn this month included a 360-degree virtual-reality presentation of outer-space images enabled by an app called Fistful of Stars and a vision-refracting headset.

Summer symphony audiences are supposed to be easy. Just give them pleasant weather, a nice picnic, craft beer, the 1812 Overture with a few cannons . . .

If only. Summer audiences can be more easily discouraged by weather than, say, regular season crowds at the Philadelphia Orchestra. And summer crowds, for example, don't take as well to reruns as you might think. Not even the 1812 Overture, cannons blasting, is fail-safe.

So summer concert presenters are looking for new ways to attract and hold audiences. That can include live orchestral accompaniment for popular films such as Back to the Future or Lord of the Rings, done to big audiences at the Mann this summer. It can include creative uses of social media. It can also include bold new ways of staging music, putting old classics in a new setting, or erasing the walls between performers and audience.

"So many festivals are trying to throw anything at the wall and see what sticks," says Catherine Cahill, the Mann Center president and CEO who hosted Firebird: Reimagined this summer, indeed a bold rethinking, with the Stravinsky ballet reset in South Africa. "But that can be dangerous if you don't have a large endowment."

Musical candidates for future summer programs must walk a fine line between populist appeal and artistic statement - while cutting across demographic lines in a niche-prone world. Visual components are all but necessary. "Every year, we start from scratch," says Jill Sernheimer, director of public programing at Lincoln Center's Out of Doors series.

Cutting-edge technology is one answer; the complete lack of it is another.

Expansive-beyond-imagination images from the Hubble Space Telescope arrived in 360-degree virtual reality amid a new piece by Paola Prestini titled Hubble Cantata this month at Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The performance was enabled by an app aptly named Fistful of Stars. Once it was downloaded onto a smartphone and the device was inserted in a vision-refracting headset, the resulting vistas proved the sky was anything but the limit.

Technology has mainly been used as an amenity in the classical music world, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra's LiveNote program guides that are accessed by phone. Virtual-reality outer-space images were incorporated into the very fabric of the Hubble piece, however, which played to an outdoor, free-of-charge audience hovering above 4,000 in early August.

"Don't forget to look around!" said one announcer. And when you did, with smartphone inserted into one of the free headsets, the views of outer space changed, or rather evolved. Yes, you were there, and feeling like you were seeing all there was to see. If anything could take the place of 1812 Overture with cannons, it's this. Produced by Jill and William Steinberg from Philadelphia, the event was said to be the largest-ever audience for a free VR event.

Yet are such events possible on a more everyday scale? That may be a few years away. The price tag on the Hubble Cantata, which featured full orchestra, amateur chorus, and star opera baritone Nathan Gunn (120 musicians in all), came to $125,000 - relatively low, but only because of crucial partnerships participating in research and development. Composer Prestini also played a major production role, enlisting the resources of the fashionable Brooklyn concert hall National Sawdust, where she's creative and executive director. Nonetheless, Prestini admits, "I was nervous. Extremely nervous."

Potential audience members on the right email lists were encouraged to download the Fistful of Stars app in advance, though many didn't do so until they got to the show. With four hot spots and a power boost from Time Warner, the app still loaded slowly - sometimes not until the piece was over, due to an audience that was twice as large as expected. For appless viewers, two-dimensional images appeared on video screens.

"You have to be parsimonious in the way you use the images because they're so much a part of the public imagination," said Prestini. "If you use them at all, they have to be done in a unique way."

And you have to have something worth looking at. For a program at the Mann next summer, Cahill is exploring virtual-reality possibilities for a concert honoring Philadelphia-born Col. Guion Bluford Jr., the first African American astronaut.

Of course, the basis of any such event is music. Nobody would care about the 1812 cannons were they not attached to Tchaikovsky's compositional integrity and popular appeal. Prestini's Hubble music was harmonically agreeable but serious stuff, examining heady questions (posed partly by astrophysicist Mario Livio) of whether life on Earth is the beginning of a universe-wide cycle or the end. It was favorably received, with premature audience departures limited mostly to families with restless children.

At the other end of the tech spectrum, the public domain by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang disarmingly dissolved the line between performers and audience as 1,000 amateur choristers, singing exclamatory aphorisms, circulated through a crowd of 2,000 at Lincoln Center's outdoor plaza on Aug. 13. Musically, the piece took an intriguingly counterrevolutionary approach: It avoided going over the audience's head by getting under its skin.

Written in broad strokes, the piece had a manner Philadelphians know from Lang's similarly scaled 2009 "battle hymns" premiered at the 23rd Street Armory by the Mendelssohn Club. The words to the new piece address common human concerns amid a fractious society. The phrases "our passion . . . our love of music . . . our voice . . . our social influence" were sung among individual choral groups and echoed seconds later from other parts of the plaza.

The afternoon's official heat index was a crushing 110. But that didn't get in the way of person-to-person contact. As choristers passed through the plaza, they pointedly made eye contact with the audience. Communal spirit was also a part of the Hubble Cantata as viewers shared smartphones with complete strangers unable to load the app in time.

That may be what the summer concert experience needs to be - large audiences sharing common thrills. As Lincoln Center's Sternheimer puts it, "It's different from going to a show and just leaving. When you're part of a happening, you never forget it."

That may be one reason 1812 Overture isn't going away, having had a rest for two seasons at the Mann before being brought back in 2015 and 2016: The big-boom element can't but be compelling to audiences across the board.

And even the big boom is high-tech these days.

Has anybody noticed that genuine cannon fire hasn't been heard at the Mann since 2002? Thanks to technological advancements, the cannon effects are electronically produced, which is safer and comes at a price that seems to be in 1812 currency: $200.

dstearns@phillynews.com.

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