In today’s high-tech world of digital sampling and music streaming, the symphony orchestra is a wonderful if curious anachronism, with many of its instruments and much of its repertoire dating back centuries. Even for regular attendees of symphony concerts, the alchemy of how 80 to 100 or more diverse musicians come together under a conductor to produce one coordinated body of sound remains something of a mystery.
To help give classical devotees and newcomers alike an unprecedented look into the elusive inner workings of a symphonic ensemble, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra developed a 4½-minute virtual reality experience titled “The Virtual Orchestra.” By strapping on a headset and becoming immersed in the short three-dimensional video, participants are able to take in the finale of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 as if they are sitting in the middle of the orchestra.
Although a few concertgoers tried “The Virtual Orchestra” during the intermission of the Philharmonia’s October concert in Berkeley, Calif., the official American debut of the project will occur this summer at the Ravinia Festival. During the first two weeks of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual residency, 10 PlayStation headsets will be accessible to festivalgoers from July 11 to 23 at the Ravinia Tent on the festival’s north lawn. For those attending evening concerts on any of those dates, entry into the experience is free, but special advance, timed tickets are required. When still available, they may be obtained in advance at Ravinia.org or on the day of a concert at the festival’s box office.
“The Philharmonia’s digital projects have taken place all over the world,” said Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra’s principal conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, said in a press statement, “and I am delighted that we are now bringing our latest virtual reality experience, ‘The Virtual Orchestra,’ to Ravinia. The incredible power of virtual reality is that it is disappointing to leave it — to come back to reality. There is no doubt that for classical music, virtual reality will be a very powerful, useful medium, and I am very excited to be taking part in this project.”
This is an excerpt from an article published in the June edition of the Ravinia magazine. To read the complete version, click here.
Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently free-lances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News and Classical Voice of North America.