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Boston Symphony to provide recordings via Google Play

Peter Foley for the Boston Globe

Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, spoke Monday about the launch of a new classical music initiative through Google Play Music.

By Malcolm Gay Globe Staff 

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has been offering digital recordings for years, but starting this week the 134-year-old orchestra is wading into the rapidly intensifying competition among online music services like never before.

Along with four other top-tier orchestras, the BSO has entered an agreement with Google Play Music to offer a selection of recent live recordings for streaming and paid download exclusively on the search engine giant’s music store, through a program called Classical Live .

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The project, which launched on Monday, features concert recordings from the BSO, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The initial offering includes 22 complete works and three shorter “bonus tracks,” available free of charge. The organizers eventually hope to present several new recordings each month, and plan to bring more orchestras into the fold, offering them greater reach through Google Play Music’s platform.

“As an orchestra, we have some aptitude or ability to promote our work, but at some level we’re an orchestra,” said BSO managing director Mark Volpe. “What Google has presented us is: ‘We’re going to promote this, we’re going to billboard it, we’re going to embrace it, we’re going use our vehicle to cut through the noise.’ ”

The partnership comes as competition is growing among music services on the Web. Earlier this month, Apple unveiled its new $10-per-month streaming service, Apple Music, with a song catalog estimated at more than 30 million tracks. That positions the company as a heavyweight as it goes head-to-head with Spotify, the streaming service that offers users free, ad-supported memberships as well as paid subscriptions to access the service’s library of more than 30 million songs.

Google Play Music, meanwhile, is a $10-per-month service that boasts a catalog of roughly 30 million tracks. Google representatives declined to discuss actual user numbers for the service, but noted that more than 1 billion users access Android-based mobile devices each month, calling it a “runway” for potential customers.

Jessica Lustig, a founder of Classical Live and a managing director of the classical music publicity firm 21C Media Group, said that the project seeks to provide listeners with fresh recordings, while also giving orchestras latitude in terms of what they present and for how long.

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“It’s possible to put up a piece or a couple of pieces that are for a specific purpose, like promotion of a tour,” said Lustig, who created Classical Live with Jeffrey Vanderveen, a vice president at the artist-management firm Opus 3 Artists. “Or, if they’ve just been to an important market and they’ve sold out the house, to then make that available after they leave.”

Lustig said that under the terms of the agreement, the BSO would release between one and four new recordings each season, which initially will be available exclusively through Google Play Music. After six months, the orchestras can disseminate the recordings in other formats and through additional vendors.

Still, while younger users have been quick to embrace streaming and digital downloads as preferred methods of listening to music, Google Play Music representatives said that classical accounts for a small portion of the company’s overall song catalog.

Matt McLernon, a Google spokesman, said the company hopes that Classical Live will enhance the music service’s offerings and attract new listeners, coaxing classical listeners to embrace digital formats.

“It’s a very attractive opportunity for us to bring more people into digital music and an excellent opportunity for them to reach such a broad base of music fans,” said McLernon. “How many fans know and subscribe to a season of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and may then translate into a subscription for Google Play Music?”

For its initial release, the BSO is selling two recordings from music director Andris Nelsons’s first season — the suite from Bartok’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”) — and offering the theme and first variation from Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” free of charge as a so-called “bonus track.”

“It made sense to have Boston in the program because of the fact that they have a brand-new music director, and there isn’t that much material yet available on a worldwide basis with the orchestra and Nelsons,” said Lustig. “That was certainly something that was attractive for everybody.”

In a prepared statement, Nelsons called the project “thrilling,” adding that the BSO’s offerings on Classical Live “represent an extraordinary moment as I begin my new musical life with the wonderful Boston Symphony Orchestra.”

Although the program represents new ground for the BSO, the orchestra is no newcomer to digital sales. In addition to distribution arrangements with Amazon, iTunes, and several other smaller European and Japanese online outlets, the orchestra reports that it has sold more than 130,000 downloads directly from its website, bso.org , where 41 albums are available for purchase. The BSO also recently signed a contract with the Deutsche Grammophon record label, with which it will release live recordings of Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos. 5-10.

“There’s a great upside and very little risk,” said Volpe, who noted that the BSO’s contributions on Classical Live might one day include live recordings from the Pops and Tanglewood. “But it’s brand new, and it’s fun to be part of that. We’ll see how it goes.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.