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Berlin Philharmonic by way of the World Wide Web

November 23, 2009 |  4:37 pm

Want to see the Berlin Philharmonic this week at Disney Hall, but finding the tickets limited and pricey? Wish that Hulu could stream Rachmaninoff along with “30 Rock”? In either case, the Berliners, who appear tonight and Tuesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, have the solution at what they call their Digital Concert Hall.

The 127-year-old band is no stranger to technological advances -- in 1980, the Berlin Philharmonic (under the baton of Herbert von Karajan) recorded the first classical CD.

Introduced earlier this year, the Digital Concert Hall was the brainchild of Olaf Maninger, a principal cellist and member of the orchestra’s Media Board. Wanting to reach a new audience and improve the Philharmonic’s profile online, Maninger worked to get the support of Deutsche Bank to install cameras in the Philharmonie, the orchestra's home concert hall, and support the webcasts.

Entry into the Digital Concert Hall isn’t free: A single performance goes for 9.90 Euros ($15), up to a “Season Pass,” a whole year of all-you-can listen to concerts for 149 Euros ($223).  Besides simulcasts, healthy selections of the orchestra’s concerts since August 2008 are also available for streaming in the archive (a real find is Gustavo Dudamel conducting a Stravinsky program from March).

“It’s not making money yet,” says Berlin’s PR Chief, Elisabeth Hilsdorf, who is in Los Angeles this week with the orchestra, “but it’s not just an experiment; the goal is for it to go on forever.”  Hilsdorf says that the orchestra has been averaging about 2,000 people per event and needs 6,000 to 7,000 people to break even.

After I saw artistic director Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic three nights earlier this month at Carnegie Hall, the joy of the Digital Concert Hall was seeing the video:

It offered high-resolution close-up views of harp plucks and timpani rolls that you couldn’t see even from that hall’s choicest seats. The downside—and with an orchestra as strong as Berlin, it’s a real downside—is the feel of the musicmaking. For streaming audio, the Concert Hall sounds clear, but what can’t be captured digitally is the force of the sound waves.  At Carnegie Hall, at one point during the orchestra’s playing of Brahms’ Third Symphony, it felt as if the rhythms of my own body—my heartbeat and breathing—were succumbing to the pulse of the music.

Even if the Concert Hall's ’s next “live” event (Zubin Mehta conducting on Dec. 6) shakes the Philharmonie’s rafters in Berlin, its unlikely to provide the same frisson for someone watching on a home system. Still, for far less than a plane ticket, it does allow Angelenos a chance to experience Arnold Schoenberg’s beautiful, spiky rarity, “Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene” (heard in New York, Boston and Ann Arbor—but not on the schedule at Disney Hall). It’s on a program from earlier this month alongside Schoenberg’s fascinating orchestral rendering of Brahms’ Piano Quintet No. 1 (an old Rattle favorite, which he conducts live tonight at WDCH). 

What YouTube is for fans of cat videos, Berlin’s DCH is for fans of serious—and expertly played—German music.

-- James C. Taylor

Related story:

Simon Rattle wins over the Berlin Phil and its fans