The Philharmonia brings Stravinsky into the digital age

When it comes to the use of digital technology to reach new audiences, the Philharmonia Orchestra has been the most adventurous in the UK, as demonstrated by its new project Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals. Jessica Duchen finds out more

Jessica Duchen@jessicaduchen
Wednesday 11 May 2016 17:45
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A virtual reality performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra
A virtual reality performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra

If you log on to the Philharmonia’s website to investigate its new concert series devoted – lock, stock and much flaming percussion – to the music of Igor Stravinsky, you may be in for a surprise.

Instead of a dutiful litany of marketing blurbs, you’re faced with a colourful, interactive exploration of the life and times of this most influential of 20th-century composers. There’s a specially made 35-minute documentary fronted by BBC Radio 3’s Sara Mohr-Pietsch, featuring Stravinsky expert Jonathan Cross; shorter clips find musicians such as celebrated pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the opera director Peter Sellars discussing their work on Stravinsky’s music; a timeline puts the composer into his historical context alongside the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the rise of Hitler. There’s something here for everyone, whether you know Stravinsky well or have never heard a note of it before.

In the sphere of audience development, other orchestras try to play the digital card, but few with quite the Philharmonia’s levels of ambition. Its interactive projects to date include ReRite, an award-winning virtual reality installation that enables the public to discover what it is like to play in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and a similar construction, Universe of Sound, based on Holst’s The Planets.

The Philharmonia’s head of digital, Luke Ritchie, says ReRite has reached 330,000 people, and a 2014 project, iOrchestra, in Devon and Cornwall, built on that success, mixing video, interactive touchscreen technology and live performance: “It was all about the fact that people find concert halls too exclusive,” he says. “We built a big tent in Plymouth High Street and anybody could just wander in on their way out of Debenham’s. We got about 90,000 people through the tents and 50 per cent or more stayed for the whole piece.” None of this would be possible, he adds, without the enthusiasm and input of the Philharmonia’s principal conductor and artistic adviser, Esa-Pekka Salonen. The Finnish maestro emphasises that to ignore this communicative potential would be worse than short-sighted. “At an international educators’ conference I attended last year, it was clear that support for arts education in schools is challenged everywhere in the world,” he says. “Teachers said that for children, an app through the interface of touchscreen is the most natural way to approach any subject: today this is how they interact with the world. I’ve seen one-and-a-half-year-olds navigating the iPad before they can talk. So this is absolutely the way we have to go, to stay relevant.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Philharmonia's principal conductor

In 2012 he and the Philharmonia released an app, with Touchpress, called simply “The Orchestra”. Apps, he suggests, can provide a seamless path into discovering orchestral music because the medium obliterates any unfamiliar “threshold” to cross.

“My experience has been that the music we present is very powerful and very interesting and most people like it very much once they get over the prejudice and all kinds of sociological reservations,” he says.

“Curiosity is a basic human instinct – people want to learn and explore – and I think the biggest challenge for us in the arts, especially classical music, is to find a way to provide a framework for that. With everything in life, from food to watching tennis, the more of a reference you have, the more enjoyable it is and the more powerful the experience itself becomes. I’m encouraged by the feedback we’ve had and I think this is the way to go.”

If technology is a passion for Salonen, Stravinsky is even more so. “I’ve always conducted Stravinsky, but mainly the three most famous ballet scores,” he says. “I’ve notched up about 120 performances so far of The Rite of Spring.” These three ballets – the others are The Firebird and Petrushka – form just the beginning of a fascinating voyage of discovery and self-reinvention that lasted Stravinsky’s whole life.

“I was always fascinated by the many faces of this composer,” says Salonen “There was his public persona in the suit, hanging out at cocktail parties with Jean Cocteau; then there was the person who went through a spiritual crisis, went back to the Russian Orthodox Church, used texts from different faiths. Then there’s the folksy part of him, the teller of fairytales. And he dealt with the best-known myths of our heritage: in works such as Oedipus Rex, Perséphone and Orpheus, he takes on the legends that form the very foundation of who we are in Western culture.”

Each of the five concerts – three in May and June, two in September – features an extra-musical element. For The Rite of Spring, the orchestra is joined by the choreographer Karole Armitage and her company Armitage Gone! Dance, in a new interpretation of the ballet; and in the final concert, Oedipus Rex and A Symphony of Psalms are staged by Peter Sellars.

But will all those digital initiatives help to fill the house for live performances? Salonen acknowledges that it is too soon to evaluate the long-term effects. But I suspect it would be difficult to explore Stravinsky through the Philharmonia’s audio-visual and interactive treats without at least having that vital curiosity piqued for the real thing.

‘Stravinsky: Myths and Rituals’ is at the Royal Festival Hall, London, from tomorrow. Interactive website and booking: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/stravinsky/

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