The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Digital Adventures

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has taken its first giant steps into the digital domain. Hard on the heels of launching the orchestra's new in-house CD label, CSO Resound, it has announced a partnership with digital distributor IODA that will make CSO Resound recordings available for download via iTunes, Yahoo! Music, Rhapsody, Napster, Verizon, Sprint, and other online retailers.

The CSO's outreach initiative follows similar initiatives from the San Francisco Symphony and other US orchestras but extends even further. Following a six-year hiatus, the orchestra has resumed its radio broadcasts, and the weekly BP Chicago Symphony Orchestra Radio Broadcasts are now available on the air or Internet via the WFMT radio network and its subscription-based website. (However, many of the stations that carry WFMT's symphony and opera broadcasts don't charge for live streaming.) The orchestra has also begun to make its Beyond the Score series, replete with multimedia content designed to help people better understand masterworks of classical music, available for free video download at www.cso.org.

The implications are vast for audiophiles and music lovers, many of whom are thankfully one and the same. The Chicago was the orchestra of Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim, whose CSO recordings of the works of Strauss, Mahler, Bartók, Respighi, and other core composers are the stuff of sonic and interpretive legend. It is the orchestra that a number of other great present-day conductors, including Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez, have chosen for many of their key recording projects. And with the launch of CSO Resound and the initiation of 21st-century–style outreach, the organization has finally wrested control of its recording destiny from the hands of major-label marketers.

CSO Resound's first live release—Mahler's Symphony 3, with mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (who sang this part on Michael Tilson Thomas's recording of the work with the San Francisco Symphony), the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and the Chicago Children's Chorus—celebrates the beginning of Bernard Haitink's tenure as Principal Conductor of the orchestra. The performance was recorded in October 2006, shortly after the famed Mahler conductor began his first full season with the CSO.

This is one helluva recording. In the sprawling first movement—one of the longest and most emotionally intense orchestral movements ever composed—the astounding initial bass-drum thwacks immediately proclaim that here are an orchestra, conductor, and recording to reckon with. Due to the Chicago venue's acoustic, the sound may be a mite drier than in the MTT/SFSO recording, but this performance's singular eloquence distinguishes it as the summation of Haitink's many decades of living with and performing the score. His final movement, which Mahler at one point indicated could be considered a musical representation of "What God tells me," is in fact one of the most transporting sonic journeys one is ever likely to take. In the face of such transcendent musicianship, questions concerning recording formats, relative decibel levels and dynamics, and the overtones of the piccolo take back seats to ultimate emotional liftoff.

Independent producer James Mallinson was brought into the project rather late in the game, long after the decision had been made to record the performance in 24-bit/88.2kHz with a 24-track Alesis recorder. The much-venerated producer has won four or five Grammys for Classical Producer of the Year—he couldn't recall the exact number—one of which was included for the two Grammys awarded in 1981 for Solti's recording for English Decca of Mahler's Symphony 2. (According to www.grammy.com, Mallinson has won and/or recordings he produced have won 15 Grammys: 3 were for Classical Producer of the Year, 4 for Best Opera Recording, 5 for Best Classical Album, and 3 for Best Classical Orchestral Recording.—Ed.] Mallinson's other Decca recordings include most of Solti's and Barenboim's in Chicago, plus many of the major releases by Luciano Pavarotti, and Joan Sutherland with Richard Bonynge.

Mallinson shared some potential good news. CSO Resound's next issue, due within six months, has already been recorded in DSD surround. Commercial decisions regarding future release formats, however, have yet to be made.

"Recording in surround future-proofs the project, even though there are obviously some issues about the future viability of SACD as a release medium," he explained by phone. "Hi-rez formats will undoubtedly have a future, and I believe someone should embrace them. Nonetheless, the CSO is mainly a concert-giving organization that has just gone into the record business for the first time. They're going through a steep learning curve, and being very conservative in how they approach the venture. They don't want to commit to things they might ultimately feel they ought not to have done. So they're taking things one step at a time.

"On a personal level, I believe very strongly in hi-rez surround. It adds a whole different dimension that you're incapable of realizing with two-channel 16/44.1. Those who say CDs miss an element of analog are, in my opinion, correct. The standard format gives you the carapace of the music, but it hasn't got the emotional core that DSD gives you. When you add the surround component as well, it really puts the music in real space and removes it from the speakers. If you close your eyes, and it's properly done, you feel like you're in a real concert space."

Mallinson confirmed that making downloads available at higher bit rates or as lossless files has also been considered. "At some point, they have to go with lossless downloads, but that's lossless files of 16/44.1 CD quality. As far as I'm concerned, the future is with hi-rez files. With the advent of greatly increased speed for broadband connections, this will be a no-brainer." (Comcast recently announced the development of a modem that can download all 32 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in less than four minutes.)

As for Haitink's interpretation, Mallinson has no reservations. "Any serious conductor rethinks a piece of music every time he performs it," he says. "It's a case of continuous renewal. Haitink's complete Beethoven symphonies on LSO, which I think are wonderful, represent such a total rethinking. This recording is no different.

"The Maestro has inherited a very new orchestra which retains the traditions of the old Reiner band. They're new people looking for a new way forward. Haitink loves their sound; it's one of the reasons he accepted the job. He also has a very special, rather spiritual relationship with Mahler's music that he has managed to communicate to the orchestra in a way he has never managed before. A big, broad grin comes on his face every time the recording is mentioned. 'You know, it is rather good,' he's wont to say."

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