His is a rather diminutive presence. With wavy dark hair and a scruffy sailor’s beard, he has expressive brown eyes and the podium moves of a dancer. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a conductor who works so hard, yet at the same time with such an open, almost childlike joy, as Kirill Petrenko.
The Berlin Philharmonic’s newly appointed Chief Conductor had just delivered one of the most electrifying performances I’ve ever experienced: That splendid orchestra’s season kickoff featuring Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
No, I hadn’t traveled to Germany for this event. Instead I was seated comfortably at home, watching the show on my front-projection system (with a fine glass of red Burgundy at hand), my Magnepan/VTL system channeling the sound.
Until recently, streaming music wasn’t something that captured me—I prefer live concerts, physical media, and analog sound—nor was watching videos of symphonic performances. There was something about the way they were shot and edited, as well as the less-than-great sound quality, that seemed to suck the life out of the music itself.
All of that changed when a friend urged me to check out the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. For me, this has been the most thrilling of discoveries.
And while I eagerly await more from Petrenko’s tenure, in the meantime I can explore the Digital Concert Hall’s extensive options: As of this writing there are 40 live streams per year, and archives of 555 concerts, 45 films, and 360 interviews.
On the homepage you can choose to subscribe weekly, monthly, or yearly, and browse by Conductor, Composer, Soloists, Seasons, or Periods. Want to see what past greats such as Herbert Von Karajan or Claudio Abbado were like, or experience contemporary stars such as Yuja Wang or Constantinos Carydis, or maybe peruse live streams of the season to come? It’s all here.
Unlike too many experiences in our digital world, the folks at the BPO got this one right. The website and accompanying app are intuitive to navigate and a pleasure to use.
One late night, after my friend had recommended the Digital Concert Hall, I downloaded the app on my iPhone, synced it with my Apple TV, and selected a recent performance of Mahler’s Second (led by Andris Nelsons) to sample. Thinking I’d watch a bit before going to bed, I found myself riveted for the ensuing 90 minutes.
And unlike those crude earlier concert videos that had turned me off, today’s high-resolution, robotically operated cameras—in the hands of those sensitive to maximizing their effectiveness—greatly enhance the experience. Zooming in on, say, how the basses are being bowed, or when an English Horn player is restating a theme; or, quite delightfully, the playful interaction of the principal violinists, or any number of beautifully shot and edited moments, laced with musically sensible cuts to the conductor, are among the pleasures to be had here.
And for us audiophiles, the sound quality is excellent. The engineers nicely capture the ambience and energy of the hall, the majestic sweep and power of the entire band when playing at full throttle, the quiet intimacy of a solo moment, all with a naturalness of air, timbre, detail, and dynamic range.
I will say that there are some pieces—such as an outstanding Simon Rattle-led concert performance of Parsifal—where I preferred to just close my eyes and listen, as I found the video a distraction from the playing. But that’s a highly personal reaction.
Finally, for those of us who may not have access to a local orchestra, or, who wish to familiarize themselves with many of the finest players and conductors on today’s (or yesterday’s) classical scene—or, dare I say it, discover new composers—The Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall is a most marvelous way to be in the know, while enjoying some of the finest music making from this and past eras. Not only is a subscription a season to musical bliss, it’s also like holding a ticket to another place, if only for a brief time.
Technical Note: On most modern televisions and Blu-ray players with an Internet connection, the Digital Concert Hall is pre-installed as a free TV app. Alternatively, you can find the app in the app store of the respective manufacturer. The TV App can also be found on external streaming devices such as Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, or the Google Nexus player. Another option is to connect an HDMI cable from your computer to your TV.