Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall

Like everyone else, we are so o.v.e.r this pandemic/endemic. I can not adequately express how much Steve and I miss going to the symphony. We were scheduled to attend a San Francisco Symphony concert, but we had to cancel the trip. Apparently one of the symphony members tested positive for Covid, and, out of an abundance of caution, they canceled.

I have lamented there being no TV apps from the San Francisco Symphony! Why can’t I watch their vast repertoire through an app on my TV?! I mean, for god’s sake, they are in the epicenter of the tech industry! We would gladly pay a subscription fee for such a wonderful experience, especially since live, in-person performances are issue-riddled at the moment.

The Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall

A friend of mine from college1 highly recommended a cure for my concert blues: The Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall app. He said that, combined with his large flatscreen TV and his Dolby Atmos surround sound system, the musical experience approaches an actual in-person concert experience. I didn’t know this app exists2 ! (He also raves about the Metropolitan Opera’s app, Met Opera on Demand.)

I downloaded the Berlin Philharmonic’s app. Holy cow and everything sacred! The app is a godsend! The Berlin Philharmonic has over 600 of their concerts (some dating back to the 1960’s with renowned, now-deceased conductors) featured in the app, including the live feed of their upcoming concert season. Concerts can be searched in numerous ways including composer, conductor, soloists, seasons, ensembles, periods and categories. They additionally include interviews with conductors, soloists, etc. And, while it goes without saying, I’m going to say it anyway: they are among the world’s greatest symphonies now celebrating 140 years.

Their concert videos are spot-on in sync with the sound. I hate seeing edits where the conductor is just conducting away, and you are hearing music completely unrelated to that moment in time – or performers are playing ferociously but the sound isn’t from that moment in time. It’s just some arbitrary jump cut.

The Berlin Philharmonic Production Studio

Their video concert edits are meticulously executed. For example, when the principal clarinetist takes the main theme, we get to see the clarinetist playing that theme. And in this way, these concerts are better than sitting in the hall during the concert where you might not really be able see the clarinetist breathing or fingering because the player is a distant figure. In their videos, you are up close and personal. It’s absolutely smashing!

I had no idea they have been doing this type of work and making it available on YouTube for 20 years! This 2019 article, Inside The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, provides a more detailed description of their studio work. Deutsche Bank sponsored their Digital Concert Hall, which today produces 4k UHD HDR video with high resolution (320kb/s) AAC audio and uses 10 Panasonic UHD 4k cameras3 . Because of the design of the stage in the hall, the cameras can almost see 360º around the stage without any operators physically in the concert hall being intrusive to the audience or the musicians. And yes, the production value is nothing short of magnificent!

The one drawback we are presently experiencing is that our current sound system in the main TV room is terribly lacking4 . So, I have taken steps to rectify that. We now wait for our new surround system to arrive. Currently listening through our wireless earbuds using shared audio is a much better musical experience than our current but old Naim MuSo sound system, which is perfectly fine for ordinary TV.

So almost every night is a concert night, even if it’s just one work.

SFSymphony+ Soundbox

The San Francisco Symphony does have their own app. They call it SFSymphony+ Soundbox. It’s just now getting started, and they have a very long, long way to go in my humble opinion. Perhaps they are negotiating contracts with the players’ union and/or existing “exclusive” performance video outlets? Perhaps they have no intentions of doing anything similar to the BPO. I have no idea. I’m sure it’s complicated and time-consuming.

Currently their app, which appears to offer free content in collaboration with other partners, has a small handful of chamber works, some short video introductions of some of the symphony players, some short video introductions of the SF Symphony collaborative partners working with the new music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and finally some very unusual new works that meld AI and massive datasets with music, lighting and visualizations – some sort of tech-music-visualization-fusion experience. These are prominently featured and appear to be the main content of the app.

The later seems to co-exist with some in-person sonic multimedia events that invitees can purchase tickets to for around $350 each? I’m not really certain what this new music director is up to with all of this though some are suggesting the creation of a new musical form. Maybe, maybe not. But, should they not add the meat and potatoes of the traditional classical repertoire, for an annual subscription fee, they will lose our interest and attention. We are older, aren’t billionaires, and we have no interest in attending the latest tech-musical multimedia circuit parties.5

Concluding Thoughts

At any rate, hats of to the Berlin Philharmonic for their excellent app showcasing a brilliant musical experience! I greatly appreciate their willingness to share much of their concert repertoire with the world. In our use case, their app is an additional revenue stream they would otherwise not have. And for us, we have a flagship concert experience in our home.

  1. Hat tip to Dan! 

  2. How did I totally miss what the BPO has been developing in this space?! 

  3. They are considering upgrading to 8k cameras. 

  4. The surround system in our former home was built into the house itself and, sadly, remains there. 

  5. Maybe they see that as a yet-untapped market? And maybe that is a new viable revenue stream. I don’t know.