By Seth Colter Walls
— A funny thing happened the last time I was taking in a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Right smack in the middle of the blaring finale, the conductor reminded me that the composer's contemporaries "accused him of being drunk when he wrote these pieces."
The baton-swinger, Esa-Pekka Salonen, didn't have to stop the Philharmonia to tell me this, because the performance I was watching wasn't live, but playing on an iPad. Nor did the sound of his voice obscure the main aural attraction, since his words were running as a subtitle track sandwiched in between four different simultaneous views of the world-class ensemble and a "curated score" of Beethoven's famous work, its notes running across my screen in real time.
Welcome to The Orchestra — a flat-out astounding new app produced by Touch Press, the Philharmonia Orchestra and its principal conductor Salonen. At $13.99, it's not only one of the best albums — you know, a longish compilation of music — you could purchase for someone this season; it's an app that could easily change how you consume classical music outside of the concert hall. Or how we introduce new listeners to symphonic works in the first place.
Aside from a chuckle over imagining Beethoven pounding back lager after lager and coming up with something as well-constructed as his Symphony No. 5 — "which might actually be the case," Salonen allows — the value of the little history lesson was its reminder that orchestra music has been, and can continue to be, an audience-shocker. This argument has not always been the easiest one to make in recent decades.
And yet, even in recent times, new media formats have tended to offer fresh opportunities for unusually powerful symphonic advocacy. The Orchestra, as it happens, harks back to these past, populist efforts to democratize the public's understanding of classical music — think Leonard Bernstein's televised Young People's Concerts on CBS in the '60s, or Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. But Salonen's venture wisely avoids trying to recapture the form or mediated rhythms of those storied successes. Physical copies of recordings, after all, are pretty much dead. Conductors aren't going to be invited back to occupy whole hours of network TV time ever again. So: on to the app store.
The Philharmonia's success here wasn't guaranteed merely by its being the first orchestra to upload some videos to a tablet's app store. Rather, their opening gambit was deeply thought through by people who understand both Mahler and the iPad. Because the best thing about the app is its synchronous way of making you feel and see various musical values at once, you will derive the best experience of The Orchestra by listening only to the musicians, and having the rest of the app's information delivered visually. The swooping and aggressive harp glissandos that come during the "Princesses Intercede . . . " movement of Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird" ballet are exciting enough as pure sound, but this app gets carried right along with the music's kinetic qualities: The score speeds expressively through each punchy liftoff in 6/8 time, while, above, a bird's-eye "BeatMap" graphic of the orchestra pulses to signal which instruments are required at each second in order to whip up the overall noise. The presentation of performance video and graphical information is where the app is elevated beyond being a pleasing curiosity and into something that feels legitimately groundbreaking in our appreciation of music — as though there might be a day when they give out Grammys for app-making. You needn't be comfortable reading musical notation to find value in looking at a score; at one vivid juncture of Salonen's own violin concerto, you can read how the drummer at a "heavy rock kit" is advised to "Go crazy."
Walls is a freelance reporter and critic whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, the Village Voice, the Washington Post and the Awl.