Ah, Tweet Mysteries of Life With the NSO at Wolf Trap

By Rebecca J. Ritzel
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 31, 2009

Way back in 1808, Beethoven wrote a symphony featuring the sounds of three birds: the quail, the nightingale and the cuckoo.

There was no Twitter Bird.

Thursday night at Wolf Trap, the National Symphony Orchestra turned that feathered trio into a 21st-century quartet, becoming the first American orchestra to Twitter program notes during a concert.

"Where are you Twitter people? I know you're out there," conductor Emil de Cou hollered from the podium out to the crowd lounging on the lawn.

Hector Beltran was one of about two dozen people who waved an iPhone (or other mobile device) back in response. Beltran was seated in the designated "Tweet-Up" area, on the left third of the lawn. But Beltran had a problem. No tweets. He signed up for Twitter hoping to get live scores from the U.S. Open tennis tournament, and figured he'd subscribe to the NSO's Wolf Trap feed while he was at it. Or thought he'd signed up. "I'm not getting anything," he said.

He wasn't alone. All over the lawn, BlackBerry, iPhone and mobile phone users were in tech-support mode.

"I want to join the 21st century, but I just don't know how," bemoaned Larry Feinberg. His concert companion had signed up for the Twitter feed at 5 p.m. -- as No. 359 -- but was still struggling with her BlackBerry five minutes before Beethoven's Sixth Symphony was about to start.

Lucky for them, Chae No, a tech-savvy student at American University, stepped in to assist.

Twitter is not friendly to newcomers. Registering for the social networking site is easy -- all you need is a name and e-mail address -- but getting tweets sent directly to your mobile device, rather than to your Twitter home page, can be tricky.

No did his best to help three would-be Twitterers sitting near his blanket. He got on Twitter eight months ago, but just to exchange texts with his brother. "There were a lot of bad words going back and forth," No said. "That's what people do." But he's a fan of the violinist Sarah Chang -- who gave a stunning tweet-free performance during the first half of the concert -- so he signed up for the NSO tweets.

Just what people do on Twitter was a question nagging Sharon A. Myers Jordan, a real estate agent who showed up, BlackBerry in hand, Bluetooth device in ear. She sat down on the lawn and started to unplug herself from modern technology. "I don't have time for Twitter," she said, adding that signing up is on her to-do list, but she still isn't sure whether this extra layer of connection will improve her quality of life or prove one more distraction.

For the NSO and many other arts organizations, Twitter is a marketing tool. The NSO's Wolf Trap Twitter feed came online earlier this month to coincide with the start of the orchestra's summer season. Staff sent out tweets that read like very positive mini concert reviews. For example, during the July 10 video-game concert, there was: "Hearing the NSO play Aerosmith's 'Sweet Emotion?' Priceless. Go, Guitar Hero!!" Other, tamer tweets promoted upcoming shows.

Thursday's missives were strictly about Beethoven and logistics. De Cou wrote all 30-some tweets himself, drawing on the composer's writings and notes in the score. He picked the Sixth Symphony, known as the "Pastoral," because it's so easy to put words to the music. Beethoven is depicting a day in the German countryside, complete with a picnic by a brook, a terrible storm and a tranquil sunset. It's the same symphonic story Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski told 69 years ago in the film "Fantasia."

But it seems human voice-overs are more reliable than Twitter. A Wolf Trap staffer sat following the score and sent the tweets out live. Yet all over the lawn, when the tweets arrived seemed to depend on what sort of device you had, and how fast -- at that very moment -- Twitter was processing thousands of messages to users all over the world. Owners of iPhones seemed to fair better than Verizon Wireless customers. (Like the woman next to me, who got a tweet announcing a DOWNPOUR -- all caps -- while my latest missive had us listening to a drunken oompah band in a pub.)

For those listeners who mastered Twitter, and got lucky with well-timed tweets, the synchronicity was indeed pastoral bliss. Stacey Diehl of Silver Spring had just that sublime experience. "I loved it," she said. "I don't know much about classical music, but the writing was so accessible, that was brilliant."

She spent all five movements passing the BlackBerry back and forth with her husband, Nicholas. And once the sun had set, literally and musically, she waved her BlackBerry in the air, not to show de Cou she was there, but because that little vibrating machine had connected her to a whole new concert experience.

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