Orchestra envisions a global concert hall

Fiber-optics join the string section.

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An audience in Trabant Theater at the University of Delaware takes in a Philadelphia Orchestra concert via multicast.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is on the verge of a technological first, possibly a big one.

Sunday afternoon's Kimmel Center concert was seen and heard live in six locations, from the University of Pennsylvania to Portugal and Denmark, in an experimental "multicast" via the fiber-optic broadband educational network known as Internet2.

Orchestra officials expect to offer open-to-the-public live transmissions during the 2007-08 season - similar to the Metropolitan Opera's live simulcasts (new this season, and wildly popular) - to worldwide movie theaters with large screens and sophisticated sound systems.

"Really wonderful" is how music director Christoph Eschenbach described the potential.

Ed Cambron, orchestra vice president of marketing, said, "My dream is that we could have 10,000 or 20,000 people hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra live, instead of the 2,000 sitting in the hall."

Unlike sound-only recordings, multicasts won't be just prestigious calling cards that cost more money than they bring in: "We're going to aggressively pursue this as a business opportunity," orchestra president James Undercofler said.

Worldwide exposure, particularly with Western classical music emerging in Asia, could be insurance for the orchestra's continued future amid the uncertainties of the 21st century, board chairman Hal Sorgenti said. "In today's world, the concert hall is the world," he said.

Now used as a nonprofit educational tool, the 11-year-old closed-circuit Internet2 is a consortium of 200-plus U.S. educational institutions, including Penn. The New World Symphony training orchestra, based in Miami, and Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music have held Internet2 master classes with increasing frequency.

However, Philadelphia Orchestra officials claim theirs is the first major orchestra to explore concert-transmission possibilities, in keeping with the orchestra's history of being the first to use recording innovations, from the microphone to digital technology.

Unlike Met simulcasts, which require a satellite dish on the receiving end, Internet2 has a lower financial overhead as well as an existing network of college campuses sympathetic to orchestral music. Sorgenti also sees possibilities in outlying concert halls and retirement communities, among other venues.

Sunday's experimental "multicast" (the word for Internet2 transmissions) went to six schools: Penn, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., Montgomery County Community College, the University of Delaware in Newark, the University of Copenhagen, and the University of Porto in Portugal.

As with the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts, glitches happen. Earlier this year, an experimental multicast at the Montgomery County venue was momentarily marred by noise intrusion and a tiny delay between sight and sound.

Sunday's main mishap was at Penn, where the Internet2 connection wasn't achieved until after the concert began. Sorgenti, who was there, was still impressed. "The one question I had is, 'Does it feel as good as being in the concert hall?' " he said. "I'm sorry, but it feels better."

Though these multicasts don't yet have the high-definition Met picture quality, one distinctive feature with Internet2 is an interactive element: After the Montgomery County concert, the focus-group audience participated in a live Q-and-A session with the orchestra's associate conductor, Rossen Milanov.

Considering the symphonic world's ivory-tower reputation, Eschenbach is particularly keen to bring the rehearsal process to the public. "People will see how music is made; it will give them a look into the kitchen, so to speak," he said Sunday.

Should conductors be kept from rehearsal by circumstances, Internet2 could bridge geographical gaps. Michael Tilson Thomas, artistic director of the New World Symphony, conducted a session of Stravinsky's complex Rite of Spring over the fiber-optic line. "They were behind the beat," he said recently, "but not as far as some continental [European] orchestras are, even when you're in the same room with them."

The Philadelphia Orchestra began earnestly exploring the technology in collaboration with the Penn-based provider MAGPI Power Networking and in July seven robotic cameras were installed at the Kimmel Center. A control room was already in place in the rear of Verizon Hall. So far, start-up has cost the orchestra roughly $500,000.

The robotic cameras further enhance Internet2 viability by dramatically cutting costs. Cambron estimates a typical PBS telecast runs $200,000; the robotic cameras - also used in an Access Concert on Thursday with close-ups of the orchestra on overhead screens - require only four technicians to frame and tweak shots by remote control. The estimated cost for each performance: $20,000.

The musicians union's contract has no provisions for Internet2; the pilot multicasts are allowed through an "experimental waiver" from the American Federation of Musicians. Cellist John Koen, a member of the orchestra's Media Institute, said the project had too many unknowns to predict future negotiations, "but I don't expect any major problems."

Another area of future concern is quality control on the receiving end. Addressing that, the orchestra issues standards for bandwidth and sound systems, and requests an engineer at each site. A less formal priority is venue size - large lecture halls or performing spaces are preferred - so that multicasts do not become another home-video relay medium.

"We've learned from research . . . the communal experience is important," Cambron said. "People like to share that experience with others. It's an event. It has energy. Sitting at home by yourself watching your computer screen is very different from sitting in a space with other people.

"We're a lot like church. People come together out of common interest . . . and they do it quietly."


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/davidpatrickstearns