Philharmonia Baroque Focuses on Downloads

Enjoying classical music performed on original instruments has just gotten easier. After 25 years of issuing recordings on LP and CD, the invigorating Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra has decided instead to make recordings of its live performances available for download.

"There's no question that this orchestra built its reputation outside of the Bay Area through its recordings," explained the PBO's executive director, Robert Birman, speaking about an organization that appeared in London's BBC Proms series and at Holland's Concertgebouw last year, and spent two weeks touring Germany. "After 9/11, so much changed for everyone in the industry. Because Tower and HMV were beginning to close their branches, the old school of music distribution was becoming increasingly irrelevant. We in the PBO soon concluded that symphony orchestras in general have to change to stay relevant in this modern society."

The PBO's move to the Internet was motivated in part by financial considerations. With the classical recording industry's downturn, the orchestra issued its first self-produced product on the Avie label, a hybrid SACD/CD of Alessandro Scarlatti's Vespers of St. Cecilia, in December 2004. The PBO retains ownership of the recording and receives most of the income from its sales. Yet even though the three-disc set is distributed in 36 countries and is the first recording of the work, the orchestra has no hope of ever making back the $100,000 cost of the project. So the PBO has now made a 128kHz MP3 version of the recording available for download via Magnatune.

Birman contrasts the recording situation of American orchestras with those abroad. While American orchestras basically aren't equipped for TV broadcast, a new 24-hour classical music TV channel in China serves 1.3 billion people. European orchestras keep producing CDs and DVDs, but American orchestras find the process extremely difficult because of the loss of traditional distribution channels.

"PBO takes an antique art form and combines it with cutting-edge technologies," Birman said, citing the orchestra's collaborations with the Mark Morris Dance Company on Rameau's Platée, Handel's L'Allegro, and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. "In Europe, our work with Mark is one of the things we're most known for. Even after 25 recordings, it's what European agents refer to, mainly because the blend of traditional art with modern choreography is so compelling. But none of these collaborations was ever filmed, because the cost would have been exorbitant."

Musician rates for Internet distribution of classical music in the US were initially set on a national level, resulting in costs three times higher than in England. Then, in 1999, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) empowered orchestras to set rates locally for the Internet distribution of recordings.

"The fact that local orchestras could determine their destiny in terms of Internet releases marked a major shift," says Birman. "Rather than paying a onetime buyout fee at the time of release, orchestras can now pay players as they go, according to sales, which makes the process far more affordable."

More than 18 months ago, thanks to agreements with John Buckman of Magnatune and the San Francisco chapter of AFM, the PBO became one of the first American orchestras to distribute its recordings via the Web. While only live recordings are now available, future releases may include studio projects recorded specifically for Internet distribution.

One potential marketing obstacle the PBO faces is that many think of it as solely a baroque orchestra, rather than a period instrument orchestra that performs a wide range of music. To counter this assumption, the PBO now has a policy of simultaneously releasing one baroque, one classical, and one early romantic music performance.

Music lovers can access all of the PBO's recordings on Magnatune via Files are available for free audition before downloading. All proceeds (50% of the sale price) go to the artists; the orchestra's only payment is its increased visibility. Magnatune has recently agreed with Apple iTunes to simultaneously release PBO titles on both sites, which should greatly increase sales.

As of April 1, PBO's downloadable titles include the Scarlatti Vespers of St. Cecilia; Beethoven's Symphonies 3 and 8; Mozart's Overture to The Abduction from the Seraglio, Flute Concerto in G, K.313, and Flute and Harp Concerto in C, K.299; Rameau's Les Paladins Suite with Leclair's Scylla et Glaucus; Mozart's orchestration of Handel's Messiah with fine soloists and the superb Philharmonia Chorale; and the only available recording of Handel's opera Atalanta, with soloists Dominique Labelle, Susanne Rydén, Cecile van de Sant, Michael Slattery, Philip Cutlip, and Corey McKern. Act II of Atalanta (also available on a three-CD set) is dramatically and vocally stunning, thanks in no small part to music director Nicholas McGegan's vital conducting and discriminating taste in singers and players.

Next, expect the PBO's performance of Beethoven's Symphony 9, with vocal soloists Lynne Dawson, Mary Phillips, Iain Paton, and Andrew Foster-Williams. Yours truly can't wait to hear the Philharmonia Baroque perform this work in San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall on April 21.