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#PromsXHQ: It’s like you’re actually there..isn’t it?

September 6, 2010

The boundary between good timing and coincidence can be blurry sometimes.

Friday saw the completion of a considerable piece of homework. “Marketing Classical Music” was the Ronseal title I gave the last video report I’ve been working on during this year’s BBC Proms season.

Three marketeers from three of London’s major orchestras along with broadcaster and critic Tom Service all shared their views on some of the challenges we face persuading classical music newbies to consider the genre and – ultimately – to coax them into the concert hall.

What was powerful to me personally – the majority of the interviews were filmed before the Proms season got underway – was the extent to which their views helped shape my appreciation of the 76 concerts.

We were onto something here. It wasn’t knowledge of the genre which was necessary to stepping into the classical music world, more a willingness to take a risk for an hour or so and – most importantly – allowing oneself not to enjoy the whole thing. If we could just get them there then they’ll be persuaded.

And to a certain extent, that’s the key to experiencing ‘live’ orchestral performances. What newcomers experience inside a concert hall auditorium is – potentially – something quite magical, not solely because of the performance on stage but an amalgam of atmosphere, the influence of alcohol and strong perfume on the senses and the process of sitting still for 45 minutes with attention focussed solely on the stage. All these factors (and more) combine to leave a potentially indelible image on the mind of the newcomer, assuming he or she is in the optimum mindset before things get underway.

I’m extrapolating there, obviously. You don’t see that point made in any of the interviews. But what became apparent as I went over the footage was that orchestral marketeers aren’t just selling classical music, they’re selling the (or ‘a’) concert hall experience.

Back to the starting point. That blurring of good timing and coincidence.


BBC Radio 3 #promsXhq

The same day as the Proms video package went up on the web, BBC Radio 3 unveiled a limited trial of an extra high quality stream of the network, available via the BBC Proms website. A development set to transform both home listening and reignite a consideration of what is the authentic orchestral concert/recording experience, assuming there is one at all.

Having listened myself to the high quality stream myself, I can hear the difference. In fact, even if you’ve got fairly shoddy PC speakers like have you’re still sure to hear the difference if you compare it with the standard feed on the Radio 3 homepage. I’ve yet to hook it up to the amp and NS10s and see if I can detect the difference there. Once I have, I’ll get back to you.

Despite the trial’s limited trial period (it lasts only until the end of this week so be sure to give it a listen), it’s impact could be massive. In what is in effect the aural equivalent of HD television, the improved online experience will be considerable especially for those enthusiasts who have already invested in Internet enabled amps and tuners.


But there’s another angle to this development which highlights the experience of live performance both for the listener and the performer. For example, the wide variety of performance style and orchestral sound will quickly become apparent. No two orchestras play the same. No two string sections produce the same sound. This will be noticed in the higher quality stream more keenly than in the lower quality live stream and in the iPlayer catch-up material.

Those differences will lead inevitably lead to a richer aural experience for most. For some sticklers it will demand a more critical listening experience not least because of the broadening disparity between a higher quality audio broadcast and the concert hall experience. Will closer attention need to be paid to representing the inevitably flattering acoustic some members of the Royal Albert Hall audience get to hear? Will the aural equivalent of an HD audio stream reveal the inevitable inaccuracies and inconsistencies which arise when a group of 100+ musicians play together? And if that is a possibility do we need to adapt the mix to approximate a radio version of the hall acoustic?

The only reason I pose the question is not – as some will inevitably think – because i want to pour cold water on this (quite the opposite in fact), but primarily because the questions such broadcast quality raises also touches on one of many key advantages to be had by attending live performances in person. These are the same questions which fuel music technologists.


Clearly (and most importantly) not everyone is able to get along to the Royal Albert Hall or indeed many of the other concert venues the BBC broadcasts from, this in part because of the number of seats available and because of geography. As such, making a higher quality stream available maintains that most important of the Proms’ mantras: accessible to all.

But it also reminds us that as well as the wide variety of string sounds different bands produce and different acoustic properties in venues across the world, so too there are a variety of different acoustic mixes radio and internet listeners hear perhaps without even realizing. It’s like the vogue for authentic performance all-over again, kind of.

For enthusiasts that makes for a continuing active listening experience. And for orchestral marketeers, it also makes for an equally big challenge cajoling new audiences into the hall for an entirely different, less intimate experience too.


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