iPod Makes Its Debut With National Symphony Orchestra

The podcast for Thursday's multimedia symphony performance is an effort to make classical music less stuffy, says NSO conductor and podcast host Emil de Cou.

Antone Gonsalves, Contributor

August 2, 2007

3 Min Read

The National Symphony Orchestra has turned to the iPod to make classical music less stuffy to people more likely to rock 'n' roll.

The NSO has made available through Apple's iTunes an educational podcast that people can listen to on the iPod or any other MP3 player while enjoying Thursday night's performance of "Fantastic Planet: A Symphonic Video Spectacular." The performance is scheduled for the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts near Vienna, Va.

The multimedia program features video from NASA and other government agencies of underwater volcanoes, the Grand Canyon, and Antarctica mountains. To go along with the images, conductor Emil de Cou has chosen a number of works, such as Claude Debussy's "La Mer" and Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

Through the podcast, de Cou will give the listener some context on the music, and explain why he chose it for a particular video. The commentaries will be short for each piece. Listeners will be instructed at the beginning of the podcast to turn on the device at the downbeat, which is when the orchestra begins a piece, and then turn it off as soon as they hear a beep. The idea is to give enough information to make the performance more enjoyable, while not getting in the way of the music.

Symphonies and opera and ballet companies have introduced many tactics over the years to take away the misconception that the performances are too highbrow for the average American. Ballet companies, for example, have often done programs based on pop music, and opera companies regularly display translations for performances.

De Cou told InformationWeek that "Fantastic Planet" is an experiment for NSO, which hopes to interest people who may not otherwise attend a symphony. "It's a way of making the experience of going to a symphony performance not so stuffy," he said.

Classical music didn't always have that elitist reputation. In the days of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, concerts lasted for hours and people would eat and drink during the performances. "There was more of an earthiness in the way concerts were performed," de Cou said.

The NSO hopes efforts like the podcast will take away the aura that has evolved around classical performances. "It's overly reverential, and it gets in the way of enjoying the music," de Cou said of the current perception. "One of my personal crusades is to kick the stereotype out the door."

De Cou believes the podcast will be a less intrusive way to learn about a performance than having to read a program while the music is playing. "It's better to have the conductor say a couple of things," he said.

The commentaries, however, will be short. After, it is all about the music, which cannot be fully enjoyed unless a person takes the time to do nothing else but listen. "This is something that feeds your soul," de Cou said. "The greatest and most profound music is something that demands a lot of yourself to be put into it, or you get nothing back."

Classical music listening could be up or down, depending on the numbers considered. According to Nielsen SoundScan, classical music sales rose 22.5% in 2006, after falling 15% in 2005, The New York Times reported. Those numbers, however, included crossover albums from performers like Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli. Take away those titles, and classical sales fell by 28%, according to NPD Group's consumer surveys.

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