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‘Ladies and gentlemen, please turn on your cellphones before the symphony’ What?

🕐 7 min read

Geoff Edgers (c) 2014, The Washington Post. PHILADELPHIA — The symphony concert begins like any other, with lights dimmed, players in formal black and the conductor dashing to the podium.

That’s until composer Jennifer Higdon, whose work is being performed on this night, takes the Verizon Hall stage and delivers a directive she has never given before. “We encourage you,” she says with a smile, “to use your phone.”

This isn’t a practical joke aimed at the maestro. It’s the debut of LiveNote, an app the Philadelphia Orchestra has developed to encourage concertgoers to toggle along to the music on their smartphones. The experiment at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts is meant to make the orchestra more accessible, particularly for the Facebook generation.

A half-century after museums rolled out the first audio guides, cultural institutions are working harder than ever — and spending more — to develop new ways to attract the next generation of arts consumers. The investment in technology, they concede, comes with some risk. What draws in newcomers might alienate the core audience, or those who don’t want to glance at a screen while gazing at Goya.

Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, faced that conflict this summer when the orchestra tried out a special “lawncast,” offering ticket-buyers the chance to follow a concert through screens that offered information on the performance as well as a “conductor cam.”

“There’s a generation or two out there, screens are a dominant part of their life, and if you’re going to communicate with those people, technology has got to be one of the levers,” Volpe said. “But the reality is, during the concert, there were people who had four machines in front of them. At a certain point, I couldn’t enjoy the music if I was trying to manage four different screens.”

In concert halls, theaters and museums, changes don’t usually come easy. In 1983, when the New York City Opera began projecting English supertitles above the stage, James Levine, the Metropolitan Opera’s music director, famously said they could be used “over my dead body.”

“I cannot imagine not wanting the audiences riveted on the performers and at every moment,” Levine said.

Ten years later, the Met installed its own system, on seatbacks, with concert attendees able to switch off subtitles if they preferred. These days, technology is hard to avoid. It enters every sphere, from e-mailed fundraising blasts to complicated stage projections.

Not even “The Nutcracker” is off-limits. This year, the Brooklyn Ballet raised money on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding Web site, to help create an interactive version of the holiday classic, complete with LED-altered tutus.

At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., the lobby is often packed with interactive tools, whether a recreated campaign headquarters to relate to a political drama on stage, to the Tweet seats, where theatergoers are encouraged to fire out a rolling commentary.

The Dallas Museum of Art offers a point system that visitors access by sending texts through smartphones, scoring everything from exhibition tickets to private tours in storage spaces usually hidden from the public.

Bloomberg Philanthropies gave $17 million to five institutions this year “to produce innovative projects … that use cutting edge technology and enable visitors to share content.”

Two of those ideas will soon spring to life. In December, when the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum re-opens in New York, visitors will be loaned a digital pen with a sensor that can read information on object tags. The pens can then be used at special tables with interactive screens inside the museum or to upload data for visitors to access at home.

A Brooklyn Museum project will merge technology to a new-styled help desk.

A small team of newly hired art historians will greet visitors, show them how to access a new app and then help them by answering questions as they move through the building.

The key, says Shelley Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum’s vice director of digital engagement and technology, is not getting saddled with machinery. She proudly notes that the museum has only about a dozen iPads scattered throughout galleries.

“I do not think people want to be watching a movie while they’re looking at a painting,” she said. “It’s better to get them looking at the art.”

The days of musicians and artists locking themselves off from the public are largely gone. Today, violinists blog about their travel habits, and art conservators are put on display behind glass walls.

Just as in televised sports, where a lone center field camera has been supplanted by multiple angles and players wired for sound, cultural consumers have grown to expect to get backstage and behind-the-scenes access to the creative process.

Mobile devices are one tool that can open those doors.

“It’s kind of anachronistic that we have all this technology, we use it, and the first thing we do when you come into a concert hall is ask you to turn it off,” said Youngmoo Kim, the associate engineering professor at Drexel University who helped develop LiveNote.

Classical concerts and cellphones have always had an uneasy relationship. Errant rings usually inspire the wrath of the conductor, some of whom have been known to stop the players to scold the violator.

And a 2004 experiment with handheld guides by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra was met with mixed reviews.

“The novices enjoyed the commentary the most,” said Kevin DuLuca, Pittsburgh’s director of information technology. “The people familiar with the works found it more distracting and didn’t want to be fiddling with the devices.”

But technology has advanced, so instead of having to distribute costly devices — the case in Pittsburgh — today’s orchestras can simply create an app for a user’s phone.

The live stream can also be restricted to certain parts of a concert venue, leaving tech-free sections for purists.

This July, the Boston Symphony Orchestra made its multiscreen performance of Dvorak available in a special, marked-off section of its summer home in Tanglewood.

Susan Hockfield, the former Massachusetts Institute of Technology president who leads the BSO’s media and technology committee, said she was thrilled to conduct the test. She’s just not sure how she felt about the screens.

“One of the reasons I go to concerts is for the intensity of the experience,” she said. “It almost feels like the air vibrates with the music. It’s an experience you don’t get at home, even with a fabulous sound system.”

In that spirit, the Philadelphia Symphony rolled out LiveNote not during a paid, subscription performance, but as a test during its free college night concert held every fall. The app, which offers a rolling commentary of historic nuggets and musical analysis, emerged after orchestra leaders noticed that students at this annual performance were already clicking around. Why not reach them where they scan?

“This isn’t about giving people something to do to occupy them in the hall,” said Jeremy Rothman, the Philadelphia Symphony’s vice president of artistic planning. “It’s about providing them information to appreciate the music.”

In Verizon Hall that Tuesday night, the music ranged from Leonard Bernstein to Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss to Higdon’s “blue cathedral” tone poem.

According to the orchestra’s own figures, about 20 percent of the audience connected to the LiveNote stream. Others used their phones to take videos of the action — forbidden, but not enforced — or to text friends and post on Facebook.

Renata Skubutyte, a 30-year-old Temple University pharmaceutical student, learned about LiveNote from an e-mail from the symphony and downloaded it before entering the hall. Skubutyte goes to a few concerts a season and was eager to try out the new app.

When the lights went up, she gave it a mixed review.

“It’s a cool idea,” she said, “but a bit of a distraction. I would like to come without any gadgets next time and do it old-fashioned.”

Old-fashioned?

“Get the booklet and before the show starts, read about the major pieces,” Skubutyte said. “Then you enjoy and concentrate fully on the music.”

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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