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MUSIC

For this Boston orchestra, something clicked on the streaming platform Twitch

The platform, popular with gamers, offered something that can't be replicated in concert. "It was a great way to connect our musicians directly with audiences," said executive director Matthew Szymanski.Courtesy Matthew Szymanski

When lockdown forced a halt to live performances last spring, Boston-based orchestra Phoenix turned to the same thing as many classical organizations: solo and chamber performances, streamed from wherever musicians could record or go live.

But there was one major difference between Phoenix, which strives to present music in a “casual and accessible atmosphere,” and its peers. Instead of Zoom or Facebook Live, executive director Matthew Szymanski leaned on Twitch, a digital platform most closely associated with video games. At any given time, an average of 2.5 to 3 million Twitch viewers are tuned into their favorite streamers, often professional gamers, vying to get comments, questions, or suggestions spotlighted via the channel’s chat box.

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Though Twitch hosts an active community of performers, classical music is very much a niche genre on the platform; one’s more likely to find electronic music, video game covers, or live DJs. But when Phoenix went live on the site’s music section, the orchestra drew in listeners who didn’t even know classical music was what they were looking for. “Through our streams, more people that would not come to concerts have found and interacted with us this year than ever before,” Szymanski said.

This past fall, Phoenix launched “The Chronophone,” a 16-episode journey down the timeline of Western music history hosted by WCRB’s Chris Voss, including performances, short lectures, and interviews. “Chronophone” episodes remained free to the public for 60 days on Twitch (the last few are still up) before becoming exclusive to the orchestra’s subscribers on its own website. And though Phoenix is returning to live performances this fall, Szymanski sees ample opportunity for the orchestra to further its mission through the platform.

The Globe reached Szymanski in Lenox, where he’s spending the summer working for the Tanglewood Music Center, to talk about Phoenix and its future on Twitch.

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Q. Outside of typical classical music visual media like “Great Performances” and concert documentaries, what gave you inspiration for the format of “The Chronophone”?

A. I think the thing that’s unique about Twitch vs. a lot of other streaming [platforms] is the community interaction. It is how easy it is to chat with people, how interactive streams tend to be. It became obvious that it was a great way to connect our musicians directly with audiences in a way we can’t do in concert. It’s like [a pre-concert talk] but so much better. We have the recorded show, which has been prerecorded with professional audio and video, and then you have me bringing on a couple of our musicians to chat and also take questions from people watching.

Phoenix performed Julius Eastman's "Joy Boy" as part of “The Chronophone.”Courtesy Phoenix

We thought, what can be uniquely good about streaming that’s not just streaming a concert? It’s being able to give people that level of interaction. Twitch gets used for that most often, and it has the best set of tools for all that stuff. We feel that, on the whole, music is really a communal experience, and [Twitch] has given us a way to have that experience while everybody had to be apart.

Q. Does Phoenix have plans to continue the virtual offerings?

A. We have found things about streaming that we can’t do anywhere else, which is why we plan on continuing. Our eighth season is planned to be totally in-person — we’re planning an announcement soon — but on top of that we’re going to be doing some stuff that is pretty similar to what our Twitch streams were this year.

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We have other draft plans to do some Twitch pre-concert talks or gatherings. Giving talks always had value to us as an organization, but we never found the right way to do it. We don’t own our venues, so finding time is difficult. We frequently perform on weeknights, so people aren’t apt to show up early or stay up late. Twitch avoids all those complications. And because people can ask questions through the chat, it’s good at letting people find the context they want.

Also, not all musicians are necessarily great at talking to audiences, but it’s even harder when they want to be in [performance] headspace. It’s so much more relaxed when we can do it, say, a week before the concert and say “If you’re curious, tune into our Twitch stream for an hour.”

Q. Honestly, I wish more people did it that way. I wouldn’t have to be like, “Do I want to go to the pre-concert talk if it means I’ll have to eat dinner at 5:30?”

A. Exactly. While we think there’s something incredibly unique about experiencing live music in-person, I don’t think there’s much about the experience of a concert talk that can’t be done online.

Q. What can the classical music world in general learn from the culture you’ve found on Twitch?

A. Whether it is a cousin of our flute player that probably isn’t that interested in Western classical music, or somebody on the music section of Twitch that just happens to find our stream — which is a real thing that happens — the music we play is so powerful, and people love it if you just put it in front of them the right way. And not just the warhorse normal “here’s Beethoven.” When they tune into our streams, they’ll put in the chat: “This is so amazing, I’ve never heard music like this before.”

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It doesn’t matter whether it is the normal classical canon or other pieces we’ve highlighted like Chevalier de Saint-George or Ethel Smyth, or Julius Eastman. We got into some music that some presenters would probably shy away from. Sometimes we think we can’t trust audiences with it. But if we don’t put up walls between the music and [the audience], they fall in love with it.

Interview was edited and condensed. A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.


A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.