Demystifying Mozart for the masses

Published Sept. 8, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

In an age when the Internet provides lightning-fast answers and life can be a blur of accelerated events, the symphony remains a sanctuary. Audiences are expected to sit down at concerts, calmly flip through the program notes, then hush.

Trouble is, only a third of the audience really understands what's going on. The rest stay ashamedly mum and try to make whatever sense they can of the intricate layers of music.

All that may change with a new handheld electronic music guide that tracks a concert in real time.

The Concert Companion is still being tested but is generating buzz in the classical music world. It may ring a sour note with traditionalists. But it could also boost music appreciation for concertgoers who can't tell adagio from a mezzo-soprano.

Conceived by former Kansas City Symphony executive Roland Valliere, the Concert Companion displays a sort of musical road map during a performance, cuing users' ears for, say, the oboes, muted cellos or double basses. Users also can switch to more detailed content, reading, for example, that Igor Stravinsky was 26 when he wrote The Firebird, a Russian fairy tale of good vs. evil.

Consider it Haydn in your hand, Mozart for the masses.

A musician at the back of the hall wirelessly turns the devices' digital pages from a laptop. Users can turn off the backlit devices at any time.

The gadget has been tested by small groups at several performances. So far, Valliere is using off-the-shelf Sony Clie handheld computers for prototypes, but the idea is to develop dedicated Concert Companion devices, something concertgoers could rent for $7 or $10.

"The three words I hear most about symphonies is that they're elitist, irrelevant and boring," Valliere said. "This device attacks all of those things. It makes the music accessible and relevant. . . . It'll heighten and deepen the emotional experience."

Elizabeth Usovicz found herself listening for the beats of the timpani and the tension between the oboes, thanks to the Concert Companion she used at a Kansas City Symphony performance this year.

For the first time, "I was listening to the full range of the symphony, and not just the violins, which is the way my ear is tuned," said Usovicz, a 47-year-old business consultant.

That kind of feedback is music to Valliere's ears.

He and the product's other creators _ two Silicon Valley software companies, Tribeworks Inc. and Kinoma Inc., and UCLA music professor Robert Winter _ hope the Concert Companion will bring to symphonies what supertitles did for operas and audio tours did for museums: an enhanced experience and higher attendance.

Many symphonies are struggling as donations thin and concert ticket sales wane or remain flat. Meanwhile, arts education is suffering under tight budgets that have curtailed school programs.

The most attention Beethoven and his classical cohorts get nowadays are in cars, according to a Knight Foundation 2002 study. Though up to 30 percent of Americans have some kind of relationship with classical music, only one in four would consider going to a classical concert, the study found.

"In a society where people are less exposed to classical music," said Don Roth, chief of the Aspen Music Festival and School, "we need to be open to ways of bringing new people to it."

So, for example, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra plays a short video on the composer before a performance, and the Vancouver Symphony uses onstage screens to show close-ups of the players. And New York's Metropolitan Opera offers real-time translations of lyrics on seat backs.

It will be a while _ Valliere thinks as early as next summer _ before the Concert Companion is truly ready, but many are eager to see how it materializes, said Jack McAuliffe, chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, which represents most of the nation's 1,800 orchestras.

McAuliffe likes that the Concert Companion is unobtrusive, not forced on those who want to let the music wash over them, sans gadgetry.

"This is really an innovative approach to a solution that has been eluding people for a long time," he said.