National Symphony Orchestra Is Tweeting Beethoven's 'Pastoral' at Wolf Trap

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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009

The National Symphony Orchestra is trying an experiment. It's tweeting Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, Thursday night at Wolf Trap.

For a healthy portion of the classical music audience, Internet-related words such as "tweet" or "Twitter" cause parts of the brain to shut down. Deep breaths. Here's what will happen: The orchestra will use the micro-blogging site Twitter to send text messages of 140 characters or fewer from conductor Emil de Cou during the performance. (Example: "In my score Beethoven has printed Nightingale = flute Quail = oboe Cuckoo = clarinet -- a mini concerto for woodwind/birds.")

The idea is that those interested will sit in a designated area on the Wolf Trap lawn with their BlackBerrys, iPhones or other mobile devices and, by following the Twitter user NSOatWolfTrap, gain a new perspective on the score. Of course, you can also follow along without actually being at Wolf Trap at all.

Such explanations are not likely to comfort the hard-core technophobe. The standard response at this juncture is to bemoan the use of new technology and the way it is cheapening our musical experience. This moaning tends to grow louder the less the moaner understands the technology in question, which is why the NSO is at pains to explain that this is only an experiment, and the hand-held devices will be restricted to one specific section of the lawn where they won't bother anyone else.

The technology issue is becoming an acute problem among orchestras. On the one hand, orchestras are constantly looking for ways to reach audiences (let's not even say "new audiences" anymore; orchestras would be happy to keep diverting the ones they have). On the other hand, a good chunk of the orchestra-going public is horrified, and loudly so, at the thought of any modification to its beloved, traditional experience. It fears that introducing new technology automatically means dumbing down.

The sad thing is that neither of these camps seems to have a very sophisticated idea of what "new technology" actually is. In classical music, new technology generally means either the use of video projections during performance or anything related to the Internet. The problem is that people on both sides of the argument -- those in favor of new technology and those opposed -- start equating new technology with "cheesy," when the whole point is that it can enhance the experience rather than making it stupider.

Take the experience of Elliott Forrest, a radio announcer and producer who has been developing a business providing visual elements to orchestral concerts. In 2005, he was hired to co-produce the Los Angeles Philharmonic's concert performance of Act III of "Götterdämmerung" at the Hollywood Bowl, rising to the challenge of creating something theatrical without the use of sets, costumes or props. (He used projections and actual fire at the end, but nixed a collaborator's suggestion of fireworks and confetti, which, he observed, are not in Wagner's score.) He has since worked with New York's Little Orchestra Society and is starting projects with the Houston Pops and an instrumentalist looking for a creative way to present a Bach solo recital, among others. He points out that the serious use of video in concerts is hardly unusual these days; in the new-music scene, certainly, it's a matter of course.

But "I talked to a couple of agents who work for classical artists about representing me in this," he says, "and they felt it wasn't pops enough." In other words: The serious classical-music business types he spoke to wanted to go even more mass market -- along the lines of Britain's wildly popular Classical Spectacular, started in 1989, in which an orchestra performs classical/pops favorites accompanied by lasers and other special effects. Dumbing down, here we come.

Not that some orchestras aren't making efforts to incorporate visuals in a properly serious manner. In fact, some of these attempts -- such as the video collage accompanying a contemporary program offered by the Orchestra of St. Luke's in 2007 -- are so eager to prove their earnestness as to verge on the soporific. Then there are more straightforward tries, such as the video screens that the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony, has mounted at either side of its pavilion this summer and uses during orchestral concerts. The motivation is a perceived need to add more visual input for the benefit of an audience ever more attuned to visuals.

Another issue is communicating information about the music to a wider audience -- and not only those new to classical music. Plenty of regular concertgoers are eager to understand more about pieces they are traditionally accustomed to only hearing. And program notes aren't always enough. (Your traditional program note -- if you bother to read it -- outlines a list of things you're supposed to hear in a performance, leaving you feeling as if you've failed a test if you miss one of the highlighted points after the music starts.) This is why we see more and more conductors such as Leonard Slatkin and Marin Alsop, who talk, a la Leonard Bernstein, to their audiences during concerts.

The search for improved program notes has also led to some smart developments, such as the Washington Performing Arts Society's series of podcasts, called Between the Lines, including interviews with performers featured in upcoming concerts. (The podcasts can be downloaded free on WPAS's Web site; the old ones are archived indefinitely.)

The NSO's Twitter experiment falls into this information/program notes category. It strongly resembles a project started around 2004 (before Twitter) called the Concert Companion, which involved sending text messages to hand-held devices during orchestral concerts. (Full disclosure: My husband, Greg Sandow, was hired to write a number of the texts.)

Many of the people who used the devices were enthusiastic. One longtime subscriber said he had heard "Petroushka" numerous times, but had never actually understood so much about what was going on. But others found it tiring because following a piece with the Concert Companion called for a greater level of concentration on the music than they were used to: It made them listen more, not less. Those who were up in arms against the thing generally didn't try it out at all because they were so certain that it represented egregious dumbing down. (One problem the project ran into is that the hand-held devices kept getting stolen; so much for the refinement of classical music audiences.)

But the success or failure of the Twitter experiment -- the question of whether this can emerge as a viable enhancement of the concert experience -- will ride primarily on the quality of the tweets, and whether they're interesting enough to compel an audience. What classical music audiences and administrators too often forget is that all these new technologies are mediums, not messages: How well they work depends entirely on how intelligently they're used in the service of what they're trying to communicate. The real point is that the message -- the quality of the music, not some watered-down version of it -- deserves to be disseminated widely, by any means possible.

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