Remember Sunday matinees at Tanglewood? Sweeping views of the Berkshire hills, the relaxed murmur of a thousand picnics playing out over ticklingly soft grass, the wind in the trees as a symphony washes over the lawn, and that elusive sense that you’ve arrived not so much to hear a performance as to simply be in the presence of nature and music, two sustaining forces balanced here with a kind a proprietary equipoise, a signature grace that belongs to this place alone.
Seasoned Tanglewood fans will surely have their own bottled up memories to sustain them through the festival’s current summer closure, its first since the Second World War. You can still visit the grounds this year, but you won’t hear any music.
As it turns out, however, there is still a good deal of music to be heard from Tanglewood. This year the Boston Symphony Orchestra has launched its first-ever online edition of the festival at tanglewood.org. New free or paid content is posted several times a week. I’ve spent the last few days exploring the streams currently on offer, finding ample pleasures and a few frustrations. I’ve also been reflecting on the broader challenge at hand of taking a festival that is so deeply rooted in a particular place, and transposing it for a domain as radically placeless as the internet.
To be clear, the entire Tanglewood 2020 Online Festival came into being as a kind of digital triage tent, a temporary stopgap to avoid a summer of complete silence. Yet we might also consider the digital offerings as a glimpse into the orchestra’s media future — both in the near and far term. On July 30, the BSO announced the cancellation of live concerts this fall, promising more as yet unspecified online content inspired by its Tanglewood offerings. And looking further ahead, it is already clear that, once a vaccine arrives and live concerts do eventually return to Tanglewood and Symphony Hall, musical organizations, like office workers, will not simply return to old habits. The new streaming platforms currently being dreamed up by the BSO and its sibling ensembles will remain in some form, constituting a kind of permanent second stage and a way for orchestras to dramatically expand their reach. Even in this new platform’s hastily assembled provisional form, the BSO is already reaping the benefits. While the orchestra did not provide overall viewership numbers, according to a BSO spokesperson, almost one-quarter of those viewing this summer’s Tanglewood streams have no prior history of purchasing a ticket to a BSO concert.
The online festival as a whole is designed to reflect the content and rhythms of a typical festival week, with the equivalent of prelude concerts performed by BSO musicians, soloist recitals of the sort that have typically taken place in Ozawa Hall, full orchestral concerts on Sunday afternoons (using archival material captured in the Koussevitzky Music Shed), and weekly streams of archival performances by fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, among other content. There are also lectures and films presented by the Tanglewood Learning Institute.
It adds up to a fair amount of listening. As of this writing, a recital by the forceful violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Orion Weiss is available. So is a master class by cellist Astrid Schween; a program with two world premieres by the Silk Road Ensemble; an excellent recital by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider; a rewarding chamber program performed by several BSO string players; and lectures on aspects of Beethoven’s music and on the Roaring Twenties. On Aug. 1, a new recital by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax is scheduled to go live, and on Aug. 2, one of the summer’s unique archival gems — Seiji Ozawa’s final performance after 29 years as BSO music director, from July 2002 — will be made available for free.
To be clear: none of this of course competes with the real thing — a statement that by now feels cliché, yet we repeat it with each new digital encounter, perhaps to keep at bay a secret fear of habituating to the virtual. Yet in this case it also happens to be true. Recalling the live Tanglewood experience and then watching pre-recorded streams from an airless room many miles away inevitably creates a kind of cognitive dissonance, a certain whiplash of the spirit. But if you consider the online edition on its own terms, or at least its future potential, more of its virtues become clear.
Among them is the basic convenience of on-demand media, in this case, being able to “attend” concerts according to one’s own schedule and irrespective of geography (for one week after each stream posts). Tanglewood has always offered more performances than most mere mortals can experience. And if you don’t happen to have the full summer off and live nearby the grounds, then Murphy’s Law of festival programming typically holds, dictating that the most intriguing programs of each season will take place midweek in Ozawa Hall, making them all but inaccessible for those coming from the other end of the Mass Pike. Eventually in future summers, having all or most performances actually live-streamed would be transformative for Tanglewood. Many of the BSO’s performances are already simulcast to large screens for viewers at the rear of the Shed and on the lawn. Why stop there?
This week’s streams appear to be functioning smoothly at the moment, if not without the occasional glitch. When the orchestra has more time and resources to devote to creating a more developed user interface, it should address basic gaps, such as the absence of any links to program notes directly from the streaming video page. A more vexing issue to sort out will also be the question of how to visually edit the streams themselves. Most of this summer’s pre-taped concerts have taken place in Studio E of the Linde Center, where several robotic cameras are being used to capture footage from a wide variety of angles. Whoever is editing together this footage seems to hold a dim opinion of our ability to listen without constant visual stimulation or distraction. In one typical recital sequence, we might be shown a close up of a pianist’s hands, then a closeup of the violinist’s fingers, then yet another closeup of his face, all within the span of a single paragraph of Brahms. The visual choppiness, in other words, too often works against the musical coherence of a performance. No one visual style will appeal to everyone, but perhaps the technology will eventually afford listeners more agency in shaping their own experience. I can imagine future platforms offering viewers the option of streaming the same event with a simple “concert view,” resembling the perspective from a good seat in the hall, or a “dynamic view” featuring all the crosscut closeups that the heart desires.
In recent years, the Berlin Philharmonic has set the standard in this area, ever since launching its Digital Concert Hall back in 2008. It offers live-streamed concerts, a vast on-demand library from recent seasons, a series of films about the orchestra and its musicians, and a remarkable archive of older historical material. To spend time on this site is to glimpse the technology’s potential to serve not as a marketing tool, which is how many orchestras including the BSO have traditionally approached digital media, but as a substantive artistic resource, an alternate space of encounter with the ensemble’s deep history and its contemporary vibrancy. Boston of course should not simply replicate Berlin’s mold but forge its own. If it does so ambitiously and creatively, it’s easy to envision future iterations of a Tanglewood portal existing side by side with the live festival, allowing not just long-distance access to an unfolding season but a richly textured encounter with the orchestra’s past and present — with text and image, sound and video, pointing the way toward a deeper engagement with Tanglewood as an actual (non-virtual) place, and with the ensemble as an organic living institution changing over time.
Make no mistakes, all orchestras will remain in crisis mode until a vaccine arrives. Yet when it does, the classical landscape will look very different. As its venues remain closed, the BSO should embrace these new media directions not only as a temporary lifeline or as a marketing tool but as a way of projecting its core artistic mission compellingly into an unknown future.