“Unique for a cultural institution”

10 years of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall

“If you can’t be there live, this is certainly the second best solution,” said Sir Simon Rattle, former chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, when the Digital Concert Hall went online in the 2008/2009 season. On 6 January 2009, the first live broadcast took place with a special concert. This innovative videoplatform uniquely documents the full range of the work of the Philharmoniker: during the season, performances are broadcast live from the Philharmonie – and also from concert tours and festivals – almost every week, and are added a few days later to the platform’s steadily growing archive. These are supplemented by older television and film recordings, interviews with guest conductors and soloists as well as a number of documentaries, such as the history of the Philharmoniker in the “Third Reich”, the final years of Wilhelm Furtwängler, and the secrets of chief conductors Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado.

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Compendium of classical music

In the platform’s archive, more than half of Sir Simon’s time in office is almost completely documented. The focus is on more than 190 concert recordings, which represent a virtually unrivalled broad and versatile repertoire. Users of the platform also have access to the only audio-visual concert recordings available of Kirill Petrenko, the future chief conductor, who has often expressed his enthusiasm for the Digital Concert Hall.  “More than 500 concerts can now be viewed on the platform,” says Olaf Maninger, principal cellist with the Philharmoniker and co-general manager of Berlin Phil Media GmbH of which the Digital Concert Hall is a part. Robert Zimmermann, who together with Maninger is the second initiator and general manager of Berlin Phil Media, adds “It was clear from the start that we were documenting the entire work of the orchestra, including the more unknown works and not just the highlights”. He describes the sum of the now available records as “a kind of compendium of classical music and the work of the Berliner Philharmoniker”.

A visual aesthetic of its own

Not least, the Digital Concert Hall is a productive response to the profound crisis confronting the recording industry, which has been caught unawares by the Internet age. As a reaction to this, the Philharmoniker effectively declared its media independence with the founding of its own production company. It turned out to be a stroke of luck that Deutsche Bank, which had been working closely with the orchestra for decades, agreed to provide financial support for the project: “Deutsche Bank helped launch the daring, adventurous and really crazy idea back then,” says Olaf Maninger. Due to the specific conditions, technological uncharted territory was entered to establish a visual aesthetic: in order not to distract the musicians and the audience from concentrating on the performances, the very bright lighting usually used in television recordings was dispensed with. Furthermore, the permanently installed cameras are remotely controlled from a video studio.

New, creative paths

After only ten years, Berlin Phil Media GmbH is, of course, still a young company; nevertheless, pioneering technological innovations have been introduced in the time. At the beginning of the experiment, YouTube was still in its infancy, the live streaming of classical music and smartphones were a rarity, and Internet-connected televisions were completely unknown. The explosion of social media could not be foreseen in any way, and media libraries could be found in analogue public libraries – but not online – in the pre-Netflix era. The DCH has benefited from all of these developments. The flexible offers for subscribers have been adapted to the behaviour of the streaming-conscious user, and various social media forums have become a central means of communication: recently Olaf Maninger spoke of 80 million video views of the short orchestral clips on YouTube and 1.2 million Facebook friends, “which is unique for a cultural institution”. Of the approximately one million registered users, around 50,000 have paid access within any season.

After all, according to Robert Zimmermann, the core idea of the company was that expensive content should not be available free of charge. In the meantime, a third studio has been set up in the concert hall. The collaboration with Panasonic, which began in August 2016, promises in the foreseeable future a further potentiation of the high-contrast and brilliant 4K format which has been used since last year.

This text is the abridged version of an article by Benedict von Bernstorff for the magazine 128 (volume 04/2018). Copies of the issue are available in our online shop and in the Philharmonie shop

Remote controlled 4K camera in the Philharmonie
(Photo: Peter Adamik)
The studio in 2008
(Photo: Peter Adamik)

To the Digital Concert Hall

From the Digital Concert Hall archive