A robot camera gazes at Piotr Anderszewski during a rehearsal at Verbier
© Mark Shapiro/Verbier Festival

The prestigious classical music Verbier Festival is allowing people all over the world to attend its concerts in real time and for free. In a pioneer venture that is transforming the art of broadcasting concerts and drawing new audiences, the festival is offering 27 concerts online during its 2008 edition until 3 August and then through delayed broadcasting for an additional 60 days. Many events are accompanied by exclusive interviews and backstage footage.

The innovative partnership between the festival and ARTE TV, the cultural Franco-German TV station and Medici TV, an independent producer of live art webcasts, was an immediate success when it was inaugurated last year. The online program attracted 150’000 unique visitors from 173 countries and those visitors streamed a combined total of one million videos from the site. The figures already registered this year point to double that amount.

Swiss television is also broadcasting 17 of the concerts on its TSR website. Armelle Roullet, Chief online editor, welcomes the challenge that makes, she says, a nice change from the traditional coverage of the Montreux and Paléo Festivals. It also helps TSR extend its web appeal beyond its usual audiences.

Classical music events are generally considered impossible to capture well on screen. But Medici Arts, in conjunction with EuroArts in Leipzig and Idéale Audience in Paris, have developed a new approach to filming that gives extraordinary crispness and intimacy to the images. What you see on the screen is no longer a flat musical documentary, but a film that captures the emotions and intensity of the musicians. Hervé Boissière, Head of DVD and New Media at Medici Arts reveals a few keys to the quality of the productions. A small battalion of robots equipped with high definition lenses glide on the stage between the artists, quietly capturing close-ups that no handheld camera is discrete enough to obtain. And because the producers know the pieces of music inside out, they are able to do the editing in real time.

But the significant innovation this year is the use of prototype encoding stations launched by the Texan company, Kulabyte, that accelerate the compression process, increase picture quality, and reduce the required bandwidth for video transmission. Live performances have never felt more real.

Such technical developments are also helping opera gain web ground. When Peter Sellar’s provocative production of Mozart’s unfinished Singspiel, Zaide, for the Aix-en-Provence Festival was being filmed, also by Medicis tv, the preternatural American director’s image editing has resulted in a webcast that the Los AngelesTimes says “ best demonstrates the power of the internet” due to the “dramatically strong video direction” by Sellars.

The vertiginous rise of productions presented online – and the impossibility to control their distribution – has transformed the negotiation of artists’ rights. Martin Engstroem, the Director of the Verbier Festival, says that he is very proud that the musicians performing in his festival (who included in this year’s edition the world stars Martha Argerich and Joshua Bell) have accepted the Medici audiovisual clauses embedded in the Verbier contracts Thanks to their combined efforts, Medici is steadfastly composingwhat it calls the “archives of the future”, a music film library that is available online with a subscription.

Contrary to the idea that webcasts can kill “live audiences”, ventures such as the one initiated at the Verbier Festival reveal a phenomenon similar to the one in rock and pop: the more music people discover online, the more they are likely to want to see the musicians in real life. Clémence Flechard of Arte adds that the frontiers being broken down are not just geographical, since people from around the globe can access the concerts, but cultural as well, because, surprisingly, new audiences are discovering classical music thanks to the web.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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