Digital Concert Hall now on Smart TVs

It’s taken a bit of a while, but the Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall service has now been turned into a Smart TV app.

I only discovered the development by chance when I browsed the brochure for the forthcoming season; a reminder that print sent in the post remains a powerful way to have a positive impact especially when physical mail is sporadic and underwhelming. 

It’s a welcome development. As a potential subscriber I like the way the Digital Concert Hall keeps the live streaming experience separate from YouTube (where I experience most other live streams), setting expectations high with performances from an internationally-renowned orchestra.

Sign up

Signing-up is swift too – one very clear on-screen prompt directing me to use another device to input a unique PIN. After that the page on-screen updates automatically. Then its one click to watch Beethoven 3 for free. Setting up a login automatically grants me a free 7-day ticket – activated when I select a billable piece of content. 

The full subscription for forty live streams plus access to an archive of concerts and interviews, is around about £140. That works out at £3.50 per concert or £11 a month. That final equivalent is a lot for me (on top of the other services I susbcribe to on a monthly basis), which is what prompted a different line of thinking. 

What is really striking (and fundamentally depressing) is the distinct lack of women in nearly every visual cue – holding slides and video. The talent roster too is dominated by men in both print and in-app. The Berlin Philharmonic appear to have overlooked the fact that the app is a window on the orchestra’s attitude to diversity and representation. In this way, the Berlin Phil presents itself as entirely out of step. The more I think about that observation, the more I think it would stop me from signing up for the service.

What I want next

What I’d sign up for in a heartbeat is a service with a Connected Smart TV app that offered a range of content delivered in a variety of different formats – audio, video, text or imagery, live, catch-up and archive. And importantly, for the arts world to really grab the bull by the horns, it would need to be a rich cultural offering too – visual art, performing arts, literature, etc. It needs to be unmediated – so no presenters please.

I’d also like there to be curation of mixed format content that could be played across devices – eg start on the TV and then switch to a mobile or tablet when I move to a different room. And when I’m in the room with the TV, I’d like the app on my mobile or tablet to run alongside what I’m watching on the big screen in front of me, effectively giving me a second screen’s worth of content supporting what I’m watching/listening to.

Where’s Medici TV’s app?

There’s one other service which is en route. Medici TV does offer multi-disciplinary arts experiences but it is, incredibly, only available via a web browser. Quite why they’ve not gone the whole hog and developed even an app for IOS or Android I’ve no idea. Visit any European concert where Medici TV are partnering and the organisers will gladly tell everyone of the distribution network’s involvement.

Medici is a big deal (even if it doesn’t appear so in the UK) which suggests the capital exists to invest in the technology. Maybe its in development. Where the BBC is concerned, my hunch is that ‘BBC Music’ – a brand often referenced on-air – might be the first tentative steps to a similar sort of offering.

But as far as I can make out, there’s nothing out there which pulls together all of the arts both on-demand and curated in a Connected TV/multi-device app. All that requires is for multiple arts organisations to join forces and recognise what they could achieve together in terms of digital access. For some organisations that’s going to be a little more difficult than for others. 

The much-maligned Digital Concert Hall (it costs an arm and a leg to keep going I understand) is one step closer to that. 

Trialling Medici.TV and the Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall

Just this weekend, I received a 7-day pass to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall giving me access to over 1000 archived performances of works by 190 composers. There are concerts from every season since 2004, plus concerts from further back including works conducted by Claudio Abbado in 1996, Rattle in 1997, and Herbert von Karajan in the mid-70s. The new season of live transmissions doesn’t start until 28 August (hence why the Berlin Phil’s management have sent out a tempting 10% early bird discount on their £104 annual subscription, no doubt), so there’s time to dig deep into the archive and cogitate before I retrieve my credit card (or inform gifters of my birthday present list for this year).

At the same, I’m also in receipt of a month-long trial subscription for which I received when I was in Verbier a few weeks back. A similar offering of live relays from a wider variety of venues, festivals and bands, plus a richer archive of performances, rehearsal footage and documentaries. At £124 for an annual subscription, it’s a little more than the Berlin Phil’s package.

How do the two compare, and how the specialist streaming services compare in terms of say BBC iPlayer and iPlayerRadio? What is the user experience of all three? What is the content like? And – given the present restrictions on my technical setup (see below), what is the experience of watching a classical music concert on a mobile, tablet or PC?

Initial thoughts are shared below. I’ll update these in a subsequent blog post at the end of trial. But for now …

1. I don’t have a connected TV, SMART TV, there’s no Sony Playstation PS3 app and my Chromecast dongle doesn’t work

I want to watch this stuff on the big 56″ TV we’ve got downstairs in the lounge. It’s hooked up to a sound system. It would make for a totally immersive experience akin to broadcast TV. If I could get my Chromecast to work on our network then I’d be able to watch both services from my tablet on the TV, thus far the Chromecast has been a disappointment (I’m not sure whether this is down to the device itself and we need a replacement, or whether Chromecast is a bit shit).

There’s no Sony Playstation PS3 app available for either service. This seems a great shame as I figure that if the development time has already been put in for Android, iOS, Windows PC and a browser version, would it be that much extra investment to support gaming devices?

Consequently, I’ve had to experience both the DCH and Medici TV via laptop, tablet and mobile phone. Not a major drawback necessarily, but it does make for a rather lonely experience. Mind you, I may get used to that over the coming weeks, who knows.

2. The content is brilliant

A quick scoot around the DCH saw me land on a breathtaking performance by Janine Jansen of Britten’s Violin Concerto conducted by Daniel Harding. After that it was a performance of Schoenberg’s ravishing first Chamber Symphony (whilst it may have lacked the urgency the usual pared back scoring has, the slow section was exquisite), and then an archived recording of Karajan conducting Brahms 1. My God, the man was intense. Screenshots below. herbertvonkarajan_berlinphilharmonic_brahms1_3

herbertvonkarajan_berlinphilharmonic_brahms1_2Medici’s offering is much broader. Opera, concerts, documentaries, rehearsals and archived performances. They also offer free replay of recent festivals like Verbier, for example. A similarly swift scoot around uncovered some real gems for me: Britten conducting Rostrapovich and the English Chamber Orchestra at Snape Maltings in 1970, Britten conducting at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon in 1954, and a documentary of John Eliot Gardiner recording a Bach cantata at Abbey Road in 1999 talking about his self-made challenge of performing every cantata on the Sunday’s they were originally written for during the anniversary of the composer’s death in 2000.

By far the most striking find was a filmed BBC Symphony Orchestra rehearsal staged in Television Centre conducted by Leonard Bernstein including initial introductions between maestro and front desk players, an agonisingly slow and drawn out Nimrod variation which (once you’ve bought into Bernstein’s languid style actually comes good), and a prickly exchange between the second trumpet and the conductor. A real gem of the kind that would never be captured in rehearsals nowadays or, if it was, it wouldn’t be made available publically. Thank God for the vision of BBC classical music producer Humphrey Burton who made the film. Telling too to see an interview with Barry Norman and the conductor in which Bernstein is smoking throughout. Screenshots below.



3. The programme notes on both services are brilliant

No fannying around with programme notes which do little more than massage the ego of the writer. Both services offer metadata which lack pretension and seek to point out the interesting things to look out for. Copy reassuringly lacking in superlatives. Let the music speak for itself, ey?

4. In the absence of a satisfactory TV set up, I’ve taken to listening to the live performances as audio only

That makes both services a potentially expensive audio-streaming service. I’m not sure I could justify signing up for both, at least not until I can somehow stream the video on the TV screen.

5. Unmediated concert performances are increasingly the only way I’ll pay attention to a concert

There was a time when I really appreciated the context given by a TV or radio presenter for a concert. Now I’ve had a taste of unmediated concerts however, I’m increasingly seeing presenters getting in the way and, like programme note writers, allowing their egos to get in the way too. Consequently, so long as there are wide shots of the audience from time to time, that’s enough for me to know I’m watching a live performance.

Benjamin Britten and Rostrapovich perform Tchaikovsky at Snape Maltings with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1970.

It’s worth noting that BBC iPlayer has collated complete works (without commentary) performed in this year’s BBC Proms. This is the only service which I can get on the big TV screen though the performances are limited to those which have been recorded for TV or video-on-demand.

6. Navigation could be improved on both services a bit

The Digital Concert Hall has the edge in terms of user experience, I think, certainly on a PC. Font sizes and layout make looking for things a little difficult. What surprises me about both services is that drilling down to a specific work is surprisingly difficult. I’d like to pick out a composer and see the works that are available, rather than having to click through to each programme running order. That said, what I do really appreciate is the way I can ‘land’ on a performance of a particular work and when that’s come to an end the player will automatically take me on to the next thing in the programme. That means both services are putting classical music discovery at the heart of their user experience. Top marks for that.

Both have a good search function – good metadata is key to this – but I’d put the DCH a bit ahead of Medici’s. DCH’s search results are presented in a slightly easier format meaning I can see the full running order, where I have to click on a result to see the result on Medici. Hardly a deal breaker, but its a comparison worth flagging.

I’m going to spend some more time delving in to both DCH and Medici services to see what else I uncover in a bid to work out which one I’ll sign up for. Both annual subscriptions would amount to £20 a month (which I suppose isn’t that much of a dent on finances really). But I’m interested in seeing what the offering represents at this stage in comparison to broadcast subscriptions and licence fees, for example and where both are going in the next five years.