When Matthias Baumgartner gives the starting signal just before the concert begins, the Elbphilharmonie grows by several hundred, sometimes by as many as a thousand seats. For while the last members of the audience drift into the Grand Hall, the others are taking their virtual seats: they are sitting on the sofa or at the kitchen table with their laptop, smartphone or tablet to watch a concert from the Elbphilharmonie as a live stream. Today, they can enjoy jazz guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel. And the person responsible for bringing the concert into people's living rooms on this cold October weekend is Baumgartner.
As the Elbphilharmonie's technical production manager, the 34-year-old normally looks after things behind the scenes. But in the meantime, his work revolves mainly around the streams that are regularly broadcast from the Grand Hall. He supervises setting up the cameras, coordinates the team and make sure everything is working during the broadcast. On the side, he finds time to explain how he arrived at his new job: »Basically, we wanted to make streams from the Elbphilharmonie possible from the outset. But it was a pretty long process.«
When construction planning for the Elbphilharmonie started in the early 2000s, and the project finally got the go-ahead in 2007, streaming was still in its infancy. As a result, it didn't play any part in the planning of the concert hall. This in turn means that there is not much space to set up cameras, while the high and steep rows of seats tend to get in the way of photography.
When the actual opening was already in sight, the issue began to take on concrete form. But first we needed a concept – and of course the technical equipment: this had to be hired at first, and was then gradually purchased. »The entire technical equipment has only belonged to the Elbphilharmonie since 2019«, Baumgartner explains with a glance at the 16 monitors that now fill a whole room in the Elbphilharmonie basement.
Concert streams from the Elbphilharmonie
Streaming: Everything is different in Hamburg
Where streaming was concerned, classical music kept up with the times; from a technical point of view, the genre has always been avant-garde. The dream of capturing the most fleeting of art forms on a recording medium or of broadcasting it to the world from the concert hall led to a rapid technical development, from the gramophone through radio to the CD, which turned recordings of classical music into a mass product.
It's fair to say that the Berlin Philharmonic were the technical pioneers: from the beginning of the Karajan era, the orchestra always exploited state-of-the-art recording technology. And they were at the forefront again with streaming: as early as 2008, the Berlin Philharmonic started making complete concerts available online as live recordings in their Digital Concert Hall. But even if the Berliners certainly served as inspiration for the Elbphilharmonie – everything is always quite different in Hamburg, and not only where technology is concerned. Thus the Elbphilharmonie didn't opt for any kind of payment model: it wanted to find a way instead that would give as many people as possible access to concerts that were always sold out. In the meantime some 30 concerts a year are broadcast, including many with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra.
A lot of advance preparation is required before a stream can flicker across the screens of mobile devices. First of all, concerts have to be selected and contracts signed with the artists concerned – not everyone gives his permission. Once everything is signed and sealed, the broadcasting staff is assembled; as Matthias Baumgartner puts it: »I just make sure everything's working. But it's really all a team effort.« At today's Wolfgang Muthspiel concert, the stream team numbers twelve people. they are responsible for setting up the technical equipment, for supervising the sound and the picture during the broadcast, and for ensuring that the pictures fit the music and show the right musicians at the right moment.
»Streaming is part of a wider transformation that we need to face up to.«
Tailor-made for the Elbphilharmonie
Producer Martin Feil is responsible for the last of these tasks. Like Baumgartner, Feil too was involved in developing the Elbphilharmonie's streaming concept from the outset: »We had a small team that worked very closely together. Everything is tailor-made for the Elbphilharmonie, all the technology really is customized to suit our specific needs.« Feil originally worked in television, where he was an assistant producer for many years before starting his own business with an interest in new technologies. »Streaming is part of a wider transformation that we need to face up to, and now we are actively helping shape this change.«
Compared with expensive TV recordings, Feil sees the principal benefit in the fairly low costs involved. This has to do first and foremost with the cameras used, which are getting smaller and better all the time. While television generally uses large, manned and mobile cameras, streaming makes use for the most part of so-called remote cameras which are no bigger than a conventional telephoto lens. These are mounted on the railings around the concert platform or placed in the midst of the orchestra, and are steered from the control room via joystick. This means that huge tangles of cables are a thing of the past.
Keeping track of it all
At tonight's broadcast Feil needs to keep track of eight of these cameras. In addition, a conventional camera is installed on the concert platform for close-ups, and another camera is permanently mounted in the reflector over the platform for shots from above. Feil considered exactly where to position the individual cameras beforehand, but he still makes adjustments and relocates some of them until the rehearsal begins.
Feil, who has a degree in musicology, also prepared meticulously for the music itself. For there is something special about tonight's concert : guitarist Muthspiel is bringing a full ensemble with him, including – unusual in jazz – a string quartet. There is also a soloist – the American trumpet whizz-kid Ambrose Akinmusire – and even a conductor. And – another exception at a jazz event – everyone plays from sheet music, so that during the broadcast Feil has a score in front of him in which every musician's entries are marked.
Despite all this preparation, a lot of questions remain unanswered the afternoon before the concert. Who is going to sit where? Will Muthspiel come on stage from the left or the right? Will the pianist obstruct the view of the soloist? Will the sound equipment be in the way? Are the titles correct that are faded into the picture during the broadcast? These are all questions that need to be sorted out during the preliminary rehearsal. While the musicians are rehearsing upstairs in the hall, the production team in the basement prepares the stream. The cameramen, referred to as »remote operators«, test various settings on Feil's instructions. These settings are then stored as pre-sets so that they can be selected directly during the concert.
»It all sounds a bit like those mysterious announcements you hear in supermarkets«
Hello from Ostfriesland!
Then finally it's time to begin. The broadcast actually starts just before the concert; it is streamed simultaneously on YouTube and Facebook, and the first viewers don't waste any time getting in touch: »Hello from Ostfriesland!«
The real work starts for Martin Feil today when Wolfgang Muthspiel comes on stage. He sits in great concentration in front of the monitors, on which he can keep track of all the cameras at the same time, and gives his team instructions: »Double bass from no. 4, trumpet solo! Bring in camera 9 now!« It all sounds a bit like those mysterious announcements you hear in supermarkets: »K6 to K48, K2 no. 31 please«. Things go on like this for an hour and half, with few takes lasting longer than five seconds. In the end, there will be several hundred cuts.
It goes without saying that sometimes things go wrong. While Muthspiel is making a short announcement, for example, we see a musician in the background drinking out of a bottle. »Well, it happens!«, someone shouts. Carry on as before. And Feil can't always rely on the score tonight, either. But he doesn't lose his cool:
»The essence of jazz is freedom. You never know what will happen next. It's our job to capture this spontaneity.«
After the concert, the stream is usually available online for a year, which extends its range considerably. For instance, a recording of Amsterdam's famous Concertgebouworkest playing Mahler's Ninth Symphony has received over 54,000 clicks to date, while more than 114,000 people have watched the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
Of course all this is no substitute for a concert experienced live as a member of the audience. But the prospect of enjoying a concert from the sofa, wearing jogging pants and with a drink in your hand, does have a certain charm, doesn't it?
Text: Simon Chlosta, Stand: 22.5.2020
This is an article from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (issue 01/2020), which is published three times per year.