Live streaming or concert hall: Take your choice!
Questions such as, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise?”, have taunted the philosophical part of the human brain for millennia.
But since the dawn of the COVID19 pandemic in March 2020, a more practical conundrum has been perplexing the minds of music lovers around the globe, namely, “If a music lover tunes in to a live streaming concert, is he or she actually attending and experiencing a live concert or not?”
Like all good puzzles, this one raises other questions, technical as well as philosophical. For example, what is live streaming? While there are several attempts at establishing a definition online, there is not yet universal agreement. Some definitions hold that live streaming is any web-based broadcast. Others contend—and I am in this camp—that live streaming takes place only when a broadcast is occurring while the listener-observer is tuned in. The latter live stream may be simultaneously recorded for later viewing, but this later viewing is not live streaming. It’s video to be watched at a later time, but it will not be live: it will be recorded.
Confused yet? Technology is miraculous, but also bewildering. This is especially true for those who review cultural performances on a regular basis or for whom these performances represent the center of their intellectual and emotional lives.
As live streaming, however we define it, takes over as the major way in which music lovers are “attending” concerts this season, I have put together some of the advantages and disadvantages of this form of concert experience, reflected on recent live streaming concerts I have followed, and then drawn my own conclusions, which are not definitive, but may help some readers pass judgment of their own.
The price is right
Live streaming, according to my understanding, has many advantages to those who create and hope to attend musical events (concerts, recitals, operas, and dance). Once the initial investment in technology and staff is made, there is no doubt that the price is right, and even the best seat in the house is affordable to the attendee of most modest means.
At a time when classical music faces charges of elitism and insensitivity to social issues, this is a clear-cut way to increase accessibility and overcome economic barriers. At the same time, discreet requests for donations may be posted at the beginning and end of an event, suggesting a small contribution for those who cannot and never will afford to be Parquet Circle Patrons or on the Playbill Donor Honor Roll.
Live streaming does have another benefit. Whether in-person or virtually, there is a real rush of energy in seeing an event unfold in the present moment. Earlier this month, I tuned in to the Wigmore Hall Live series for a 1 p.m. live concert by the incomparable pianist, Llŷr Williams. Williams performed an all-Romantics program with intellectual depth, emotional conviction, and distinctive wit. Of course, in the States, this meant that I needed to be up and logged on to my computer by 8 a.m., not a time I am typically inclined to attend a concert (though in Beethoven’s era, 8 a.m. concerts were not unheard of, see the premier of the Kreutzer Sonata in the Augarten Theatre.) But a small price to pay for an unforgettable hour of Robert Schumann and friends performed by a master artist.
Which brings me to another advantage, the opportunity to experience the concert again in recorded form. The number of hours or days one can reexperience the event depends on the venue. With the Wigmore series, it is 30 days. However, the season opener for the Atlanta Symphony with Gil Shaham last week was available in recorded form for 72 hours. Even that short window is of incalculable benefit to music enthusiasts, who may repeat the viewing experience as often as they like during that time, checking up on a passage or fleeting observation.
Another way in which live streaming can best recorded forms of performance is in capturing the spontaneity and “anything can happen” quality of a live concert. Live theater is risky and adds an edge of excitement to the performers’ as well as the audience’s experience of the event.
And nothing pleases this listener more than the ubiquitous availability of live music at the tap of a computer screen. Last year, I spent more time commuting to and from concerts than I did attending them, and that was just for concerts in my area (Philadelphia to New York City). Now, most major venues that offer live streaming are available worldwide, though you may have to set your alarm at an unusual time to catch a Singapore Symphony concert streaming into the UK.
Is it live, or is it YouTube?
There are disadvantages to live streaming, and those who claim it will never replace pre-COVID19 concerts can make a convincing case of it. For one thing, the sound will always be technology-delivered.
Sit in Verizon Hall in Philadelphia and you will hear the exact notes played by Concertmaster David Kim or the glorious brass and woodwind sections of the Philadelphia Orchestra. You will not only hear the thunder of the timpani in the glowering darkness, you will feel the vibrations rise from the floor and shiver up your leg, and your eardrums will twitch in that peculiar but not unpleasant way they do in a real concert hall. This isn’t the same as watching a concert on your phone while you peel potatoes in the kitchen or engage in any number of attention-distracting activities sure to happen at home.
Another disadvantage of live streaming is the way it cuts off communication between artists and the broader audience. Yes, artists do communicate with audiences. They make eye contact, they accept bouquets. Llŷr Williams is known for sharing a sidelong glance with listeners, and smiling, perhaps with a wink, as he turns a particularly difficult phrase. While the performing artists may be enjoying these details with the real people in the live concert audience, the homebound viewer will not. The computer can be an obstacle standing between the listener’s experience and the concert event happening many miles away. Similarly, the artists will not hear our shouts and cheers, no matter how vigorous our approval.
Disadvantages include the occasional feeling that you are not part of a live event, but just watching TV or YouTube. And then there is the matter of compensation for producers and artists. What is a bargain for the attendees is not part of a livable income for artists and impresarios.
Take it on its own terms
I think the best way to consider live streaming is as an add-on to existing ways of experiencing music. Imagine how some concert-goers must have grumbled when the first gramophone hit the market. “It will never replace the live concert.” Similarly the live stream is here to stay and deserves its own place in the pantheon of music media, with a possible solution to a concern many older concert-goers share.
Adept in the language of tech and eager to stay connected every waking hour, a new generation of potential music lovers is stirring in the great stream of the Internet. Live streaming may be just the bait we need to reel them in.