Philharmonic Downloads Top the iTunes Charts

On March 24, Universal Classics labels Decca and Deutsche Grammophon announced a pioneering global initiative to release live recordings of recent performances by the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics for download on iTunes. By the end of the year, four major European orchestras are expected to follow suit, releasing live concerts on the web on the DG Concerts or Decca Concerts virtual labels.

Other digital service providers such as Real's Rhapsody and Napster are expected to follow iTunes' lead in the coming weeks. While all of the files are currently compressed, Universal Classics is reportedly investigating the best way to make uncompressed files available for download.

The wisdom of Universal Classics' forward-looking agreement, which promises digital downloads of four live concert recordings from each orchestra per season plus an optional CD release of one concert per year, is evidenced by the immediate popularity of the downloaded material. The New York Philharmonic's first release, of Mozart's final three symphonies (39, 40, and 41) conducted by Lorin Maazel, was No.1 on the iTunes classical chart for a week and remains in iTunes' classical Top 10. At one point, the concert peaked at No.35 in iTunes' Top 100 multi-genre ratings, temporarily outselling Madonna, Cold Play, and U2.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic's initial virtual offerings are far more adventurous. The orchestra has already released two recordings on iTunes of concerts from their recent, two-week Minimalist Jukebox Festival directed by composer John Adams. The first virtual CD includes works by Louis Andriessen and Arvo Pärt; the second is devoted to the music of Steve Reich. Both have been in iTunes' Classical Top 10 since their initial release, with the Reich rising as high as No.3.

"The LA Philharmonic's first two releases represent what we and Esa-Pekka Salonen are doing in terms of innovative and cutting-edge programming," LAP public relations spokesperson Adam Crane told Stereophile. "We wanted to release something that would fall outside the norm."

I'll say. The Minimalist Jukebox Festival kicked off at 11:59pm with a sold-out, all-night rave in Walt Disney Concert Hall showcasing British techno group Orb. At 3am, the hall was rocking with many people in their 20s and 30s, 90% of whom had never previously entered a classical concert hall. A significant number returned for the Reich and Andriessen/Pärt concerts. They also flocked to three live events priced at $10, including a sold-out evening of Glenn Branca's Symphony 13: "Hallucination City" for 100 electric guitars. In all, attendance at the Minimalist Jukebox Festival reached 91.5% of attendance at core classical concerts, giving the lie to proclamations that classical audiences are resistant to new, innovative repertoire.

The NYP's second virtual release, scheduled for May 9, will feature the orchestra's Avery Fisher Hall concert of March 31: Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Kodály's Dances of Galánta, and Dvoràk's Symphony 7. Lest the East Coast begin to sound stodgy, a concert that includes music by the indefatigable Elliot Carter is under consideration for future virtual release.

While repertoire for New York's forthcoming Deutsche Grammophon CD release has not been determined, the NY Philharmonic is also poised to release two CDs a year with New World Records, both consisting of world premieres of new American works commissioned by the orchestra. All recordings are supervised by audio director Lawrence Rock, who oversees recordings of the orchestra's performances that are broadcast weekly to 250 markets around the country on the WFMT Fine Arts network. Live concerts are also available for streaming for limited periods at the orchestra's website.

Asked if reaction to New York's initial virtual release has met expectations, orchestra publicist Eric Latzky confessed, "I don't think we had any expectations at all. This is really new terrain for everyone. It has been a great and very pleasant surprise, boding well for a younger generation demonstrating an interest in classical music."

LA's next online releases, scheduled for mid-May, feature two virtual concerts from the Beethoven Unbound series conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The first pairs Beethoven Symphony 5 with Lutoslawski's Fourth; the second mates Beethoven's Seventh with the world premiere of Finnish composer Anders Hillborg's Eleven Gates.

"We're not the type of orchestra that would issue a straight Beethoven CD," says Crane. "We're known for our unique repertoire. Esa-Pekka felt we needed to do Beethoven with a twist."

The twist, it must be noted, does not extend to the CD the LA Philharmonic plans to release under the agreement next September. That pairing of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring—yes, yet another addition to the Rite-saturated catalog—Moussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, and Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin features signature pieces in which Esa-Pekka Salonen and the orchestra are said to excel. Representing LA's first CD release since 2001, as well as the first CD with Esa-Pekka Salonen in Disney Hall, it scores 10 on the scale of audiophile demo potential.

According to a critic at the Los Angeles Times, Esa-Pekka Salonen has reportedly declared that the CD is dead. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't. Meanwhile, the number of digital tracks downloaded this year through April 16 is up 84% over the same period last year. UMG's revenue jumped 8.4% in the first quarter vs the same period last year, and EMI's revenue rose 4% for the fiscal year ended March 31. Digital sales now account for 10% of UMG's revenue, which still leaves a healthy percentage to CDs, DVDs, and other media.

Given how well New York and LA's classical downloads are doing, those who sound the death knell for classical recordings, or who arrogantly declare that classical music is the province of old people, may live to sing a different tune.