Pixel Perfect: Become virtually part of the music in The Virtual Orchestra

By Kyle MacMillan

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’s Symphony No. 5 as though 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, CA, the official American debut of the project will take place this summer at Ravinia. Ten PlayStation headsets will be accessible to festivalgoers from July 11 to 23—during the first two weeks of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual residency—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. While still available, they can 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,” 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.”

Esa-Pekka SalonenFew if any international symphony orchestras have rushed to embrace today’s technological innovations in communication and imagery with the fervor of the Philharmonia. In 2007, the ensemble hired a video producer and web developer, and the fledging digital department got a big boost a year later with the arrival of Salonen as artistic leader. The forward-looking Finnish conductor quickly embraced its mission and pledged his participation. Signaling the importance of the digital initiative to the Philharmonia, it is not a subsidiary of the Marketing Department, as is the case with many classical organizations, but a free-standing entity that reports directly to the managing director.

In addition to producing content for the orchestra’s website and developing an iPad app, the department has conceived a series of what digital director Luke Ritchie describes as “weird and wonderful” technological productions. These began with two giant, immersive installations that have drawn more than 350,000 visitors during presentations worldwide—“RE-RITE” (2009) and its successor, “The Universe of Sound: The Planets” (2012).

For the latter, Salonen and the Philharmonia were filmed in high definition using 37 cameras as they performed Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The resulting video images were projected in sync on a series of large screens spread through 10 rooms, each showing different perspectives of the orchestra. Visitors strolled through this modular, multisensory installation, which has been presented in tents, art galleries, and an assortment of other buildings. It culminates with a planetarium-style dome with multiple images seen in the round. “It’s like walking through a giant virtual orchestra, basically,” Ritchie says. Additional features included pods where visitors could conduct along with the orchestra and a room where children could play some of the percussion instruments showcased in the work.

A case can be made that symphony orchestras, like classical music in general, are drifting away from the cultural mainstream, and concert halls, with the sometimes stuffy-seeming traditions that go along with them, can be off-putting to many people. This groundbreaking installation is a way to transcend the concert hall and reach out to those who might not otherwise have any contact with the Philharmonia or another similar ensemble. “We’re just not on people’s radar,” Ritchie says. “So we use this exhibition to take it [the orchestra] to places you wouldn’t expect.”

As a follow-up to “The Universe of Sound,” the Digital Department approached Salonen about a possible virtual reality project in 2014, when the technology was beginning to become more ubiquitous. Like with the two previous installations, the idea was to provide a point of view of the orchestra that people couldn’t get any other way and to spur excitement about symphonic music. The conductor was immediately enthusiastic, so Ritchie approached Inition, a London-based company specializing in virtual reality, about collaborating on the project, and discussions began about what composition to spotlight. Salonen and the creative team did not pick a section from a warhorse like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, as might be expected. They instead opted for the finale of Sibelius’s lesser-known Symphony No. 5, which was composed in 1915—a little over a century later—revised in 1916 and 1919. It happened to be a work that the orchestra was performing at the time, and it had the advantage of a keenly dramatic conclusion.

“There is this terrifying moment at the end of the third movement,” Ritchie says, “where everyone is hanging off the last six downbeats from the conductor, and there is just silence between each of those bars. You kind of have your heart in your mouth, because if he gets it wrong, it’s going to sound awful.” During those brief, successive moments of silence, participants in the virtual reality experience can hear minute ambient noises in the orchestra and even the subtle swoosh of Salonen’s baton. “I think it was the physicality and immediacy of it that worked well in VR,” the digital director says of the symphony.

The video for “The Virtual Orchestra” was filmed at the end of 2015, and the project was introduced to the press at the beginning of 2016. It opens backstage at Royal Festival Hall, the orchestra’s home as part of London’s Southbank Centre on the Thames, and includes footage looking from a balcony over the famed waterway. The rest of the experience focuses on the final two minutes of the Symphony No. 5, with the viewer in front of Salonen in the middle of the orchestra. “Even if you are a massive classical music fan, with the virtual reality you’ll get a perspective you would never be allowed to get any other way, because you are sitting basically in the front row of the violins,” Ritchie says.

In September at the Southbank Centre, the Philharmonia presented a two-week festival that featured the first presentation of “The Universe of Sound” at the orchestra’s home base and a chance to participate in “The Virtual Orchestra.” Welz Kauffman, Ravinia’s president and CEO, attended the event and was so taken with the Philharmonia’s virtual reality project that he set about bringing it to Chicago. “I first approached the Philharmonia’s VR experience with both fear and, I’ll admit, a little disdain,” Kauffman says. “Fear that I wouldn’t understand its potential beauties, as I’m not a techie, and disdain because I’m an old-fashioned person who believes music experiences should reflect their original expression. I was wrong on both counts, and happy to be wrong.

“First, it’s insane to not want to try any possible messenger of something that is important, and music is important to me. Even if I’m not fluent in the technology, that doesn’t mean that these mediums aren’t a great way to communicate and to experience. Second, great art should be able to transcend any medium with its greatness—one should trust the art to do so.

Special binaural microphones were used to record the sound“So I put on the goggles and headset and, surrounded by 8-year-olds—and a couple of the 8-year-olds’ dads—took in a 4½-minute experience of sublime symphonic splendor celebrating Sibelius and Salonen,” Kauffman effuses. “A rare opportunity to witness great art in the middle of it, like sitting next to the Mona Lisa, flat on my back against the Sistine Chapel ceiling, being the stage floor where Mick Jagger is strutting and singing. That’s the kind of multisensory connectedness that this extraordinary VR experience presented to us by the Philharmonia creates.

“Do I think this VR moment should substitute for a CSO concert? Of course not. Neither do I believe a young person in 1860 should have valued a mechanical music box over a live concert. But any gateway to the arts is indeed that, a way in, and this Virtual Orchestra is absolutely that.”


“The Virtual Orchestra” will soon be available for download to PlayStation 4 owners who have the necessary accompanying virtual reality headsets. They will be able to access two versions, both of which will be seen at Ravinia—the 4½-minute edition focusing on those breathtaking, climactic moments, and a “director’s cut” that runs about 13 minutes. The latter includes a longer introduction by Salonen and the complete third movement of the symphony, which runs about nine minutes. “We did [the two versions] because we don’t [want to presuppose] how people want to engage with this,” Ritchie says, “and whether people want to sit through the whole movement.”

If orchestras are going to survive the next decade, let alone another 50 or 100 years, the digital director sees technological outreach as essential. He believes that is especially true for the Philharmonia, which operates in a crowded market in London and has to find ways to differentiate itself from four other major symphony orchestras. In addition, like many classical organizations, it struggles to draw younger, more diverse audiences, just the kind who are likely to respond to the innovative initiatives the orchestra has undertaken.

“I don’t think people are going to want to stop seeing concerts,” Ritchie says, echoing Kauffman’s belief, “but I think we have to think of ways to get the orchestra out beyond the concert hall, to go to people on their terms and persuade them and win them over so that they will want to come and see concerts. All those products that we do don’t put people off coming to see something live. Any artist or musician that I love, I would much rather see them onstage in a real concert than even in VR. They’re not mutually exclusive at all. I think the content we show is helping to build our audiences in the future.”

Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.