Going high-tech at the symphony

BY MATTHEW ERIKSON
Hartford Courant

A new gadget called the Concert Companion helps symphony-goers with real-time commentary.

It’s being pushed by some as a solution to draw new audiences to symphony concerts. But others think it’s a distraction that could do more harm than good.

The cause for the clash is the Concert Companion, a new handheld gadget that assists symphony listeners with real-time musical commentary and live video of the performance.

As easy to use as any other PDA or Palm Pilot (the latest prototype is a Hewlett-Packard Pocket PC, to be precise), the Concert Companion received raves in trials last spring in New York and Pittsburgh. And it’s on the fast track to show up in symphony halls across the country.

“The market demand for the Concert Companion is as great as any product I’ve been part of,” says Barry Goldberg, CEO of Opera Glass Networks, the Weston, Conn., company that developed much of Concert Companion’s technology.

“The key question is if the economics are there,” says Goldberg. “Now we’re going down that path. There are no clear answers, but everything seems to be aligning just right.”

This synergy of music, business and technology first occurred to Roland Valliere a few years ago, when he was executive director of the Kansas City Symphony. A trained musician and unabashed “gadget geek,” Valliere says the intent was to make symphonic music more accessible to a wider audience, as supertitles did for opera or audio-guides for museums. He came up with the first prototype three years ago.

“There are two things we have to overcome: Fewer people are familiar with the language of classical music nowadays. The second barrier is that there is more competition for leisure time,” Valliere says. “People are less familiar with classical music, and they have less time to get more familiar. The key is to get them in real time while there (at the concert).”

Valliere gave a presentation to the board of directors of the Wichita Symphony last September. Mitchell Berman, executive director of the symphony, was enthusiastic about the technology, and thought the Concert Companion could help with the orchestra’s own audience outreach initiatives. But, because the device is still in the testing stages, it is not yet practical to use it regularly at concerts here, Berman said.

At a recent New York Philharmonic performance of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” listeners with the Concert Companion read this on their handheld screens during the music’s opening measures:

“An irresistible beginning. The flute — dancing brightly — takes the lead.” Seconds later, the text disappeared and was followed by the next screen: “Stravinsky wrote this music for a ballet. It’s going to tell a story, one that’s vivid and theatrical.” The text is delivered via a wireless network controlled by one operator. Another broadcasts the commentary in time with the score and conductor. Goldberg and his company of nine employees ran the trial.

Optimistic about the buzz the Concert Companion has generated from curious orchestras, Goldberg says it’s ready to go commercial. For him, the critical business issue is not the cost of the technology — he foresees the $500 price tag for the PDA decreasing with greater demand — but the cost of developing the commentary library for the vast symphonic repertoire.

Though the Concert Companion has drawn praise from some corners, it’s not without its critics, including pianist Leon Fleisher. He objected to the Concert Companion’s being used during his performance of the Ravel Piano Concerto for Left Hand with the New York Philharmonic. Fleisher considered it too distracting.

One of the key questions continues to be how other performers and conductors are going to react to the device. As the Concert Companion advances to its next trials in a few orchestras in larger cities this fall, there are certain to be other issues and challenges that arise.