On a Friday afternoon in February, I got snowed out of a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert. There was a blizzard in the area and a tree fell on the train tracks, blocking the Green Line. The next day, I made it to the performance, of works by Shostakovich, Hans Abrahamsen (“let me tell you,” with Barbara Hannigan), and Prokofiev. Listening to Abrahamsen’s work that Saturday night, something strange happened: the work brought me back to the unheated subway car the day before, which brought me back to the lonely silence of shoveling neighbor’s snow for money as a teenager.
Orchestras increasingly rely on social media and Digital Concert Hall-like streams to reach wider audiences than their normal subscriber base. On my trip home to Boston to report on the BSO (full disclosure: the orchestra payed for my flights), I started thinking about the way the physical experience of an orchestra stays with you. During my stay, I spoke with Andris Nelsons, the music director, and Mark Volpe, the managing director, and the potential risks and rewards of digital interaction with an orchestra became an organic focus of our conversations.
The critic Nathan Heller, in an essay on the future of aviation for the New Yorker, wrote, “The battle between jet planes and smartphones isn’t about speed or glamour. It’s about ways of knowing.” He argued that, no matter how much more convenient and comfortable the digital experience of “going” somewhere is, people will continue to travel by air, to seek out the exceptional. The same thesis may well apply to music.
Social media can provide access to orchestral musicians without the stress and awkwardness of a fan approaching them with compliments. I remember idolizing the players in the BSO in a way that was inextricable from their inaccessibility. I got to know their names and heard them playing often, but part of the magic was the distance.
But this idealized view of the orchestral profession isn’t necessarily viable for the future. “The job description is [getting] broader and broader,” Volpe told me. “We still aspire to be one of the great orchestras in the universe, and we hire the best players we possibly can. [But for] some orchestras, the civil part, the social part, the advocacy part, the education part, the media part—there’s a much broader job description,” he said.
I asked him if, given the choice between two equally proficient players, one of whom has an avid social media following and one of whom has never and will never tweet, he would choose the former. “Right now we would choose the best player. And there’s always a best player,” he said. But he was running a smaller orchestra that needed to fight harder for its relevance in town, “Boy, I’m gonna think differently.”
The BSO has a widely viewed website, and recently began experimenting with the use of iPads for audience members. The tablet features a “conductor cam,” and listeners can access materials about the pieces during the performance. Whether this is useful and informative, or a distraction from the music, became a family argument over Chinese food later that week.
Nelsons also had mixed feelings on the use of social media by musicians. He emphasized that while the technology is invaluable if it can help the orchestra reach even a small amount of people who wouldn’t have attended otherwise, he said he would feel uncomfortable about promoting an orchestra online if he felt its musical qualities didn’t measure up.
It became clear that one of Nelsons’ most important musical memories was rooted in physical experience, too. At one point in our interview the conversation turned to beer, and he told me, “I started drinking in Bayreuth.” He described conducting Wagner in the summer heat there: “You enjoy it masochistically, it’s long, it’s two hours, but after it’s like a second breath opens, you think, Oh, I can go forever.” If masochism is an essential part of the experience, it’s one you are unlikely to get on your couch at home.
In 2008, I went to Tanglewood with a few friends. We pitched a tent at a camping site in the Berkshires nearby; it rained through the tent onto our sleeping bags. I woke up first and got a spot on the back seat of my friend’s van. Then we snuck into a concert.
Like sitting on a subway car going nowhere, listening to the BSO with wet socks and an aching back was not a comfortable experience, and there are times when the comfort digital experiences offer is invaluable. But as Nelsons described, a certain environment is sometimes the essential component of a musical memory. Neither social media interaction nor the most perfect digital concert space can replicate this.
I found the skepticism of both Nelsons and Volpe on the topic refreshing. The BSO is my hometown orchestra after all, inseparable from the visceral memories of adolescence. The peripheral gives substance and a welcome sentimentality to the experience of the music. As for the blizzard tranquility of Abrahamsen’s work: You had to be there. ¶