Minnesota Orchestra Streams Concerts on Demand

The Minnesota Orchestra has become one of the first symphony orchestras in the US to archive selected broadcasts for online streamed listening on demand. Through an arrangement with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), which has broadcast virtually every Minnesota Orchestra concert since 1974, the performances are now available for up to a year's time at www.mpr.org/minnesotaorchestra.

MPR has currently posted nine complete concerts from the Minnesota Orchestra's 2005 season. Highlights include Aho's Symphony No.7, Shostakovich's Symphony No.5, Nielsen's Symphony No.5, Emanuel Ax in Mozart's Piano Concerto No.27, Adam Kuenzel in the Nielsen Flute Concerto, Viktoria Mullova in the Brahms Violin Concerto, Louis Lortie in Liszt's Totentanz, Yefin Bronfman in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.5, Leila Josefowicz in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No.1, and Verdi's Requiem, with star soloists Christine Brewer, Lilli Paasikivi, Frank Lopardo, and James Morris.

The extra availability of Minnesota Orchestra performances is of special interest to audiophiles who have become enamored of the orchestra's sound via its award-winning CDs for Reference Recordings. (RR's Casa Guidi CD of Dominick Argento's music, featuring the Minnesota Orchestra and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, won a Grammy in 2005). Though the orchestra's switch of music director from Eiji Oue to Osmo Vänskä has precipitated a (perhaps temporary) record-label switch from Reference Recordings to BIS, the Swedish company Vänskä has traditionally recorded for, BIS continues a commitment to high-quality recording by releasing the ongoing Vänskä/Minnesota Beethoven cycle on multi-channel hybrid SACD.

The first Beethoven SACD release, containing Beethoven's Symphonies 4 and 5, received a Gramophone "Editor's Choice" award and a host of equivalent accolades from related publications. Symphonies 3 and 8 are due out in June, with the Ninth (Choral) Symphony, featuring the Minnesota Chorale and soloists Helena Juntunen (soprano), Katarina Karnéus (mezzo), Daniel Norman (tenor), and Neal Davies (bass-baritone), expected this fall. Audiophiles wishing to audition these renditions before purchasing can find the same live performances of Symphonies 1, 3, 6, and 8 (albeit in less than audiophile sound) on MPR's Minnesota Orchestra webpage.

According to Preston Wright, producer of MPR's web page, Minnesota Orchestra's programs are currently archived in 32k stereo and are playable on the Windows Media Player.

"We're in a transition stage," he explains. "We're trying to meet the audience halfway, so that people with all different speed connections can stream without difficulty. We expect to increase resolution to 128k sometime in the future. Meanwhile, we find that for 32k, Windows Media Player's sound quality is superior to Real Player's."

Wright has tremendous praise for the orchestra's progressive attitude. Its administrators realize, for example, that allowing people to stream the same Beethoven concerts that are available on SACD will entice more people to buy the recordings.

Brian Newhouse, the host, writer, and producer of MPR's Minnesota Orchestra broadcasts, also praises the decision to make performances available on the web.

"This historic partnership is about access," he says. "Streaming on demand adds another dimension to our live radio broadcasts, and demonstrates how we are constantly trying to innovate our approach to classical music media."

Tony Woodcock, CEO and president of the Minnesota Orchestra, notes that the orchestra's relationship with MPR has always been positive. For the last five years, the station has posted live web streams of every Friday night concert. Two years ago, MPR even flew their staff and equipment to Finland to enable a live broadcast of the orchestra's last concert on their European tour.

MPR operates a 37-station radio network that serves virtually all of Minnesota and parts of surrounding states. It also has the highest percentage of listener membership of any community-supported public radio network in the United States. To this music critic, situated in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the main national public radio station broadcasts talk 24 hours a day and the only classical station confines itself to "pleasant," oft-insipid instrumental classics, Minnesota Public Radio's breadth of vision seems from another world.

Programs produced by Minnesota Public Radio and its national production and distribution arm, American Public Media(™), reach 14.1 million listeners nationwide each week. APM's portfolio includes A Prairie Home Companion®, Weekend America®, Saint Paul Sunday®, Marketplace®, Marketplace Money®, The Splendid Table®, Speaking of Faith®, and special reports produced by its national documentary unit, American RadioWorks®.

MPR currently streams three different radio stations at 64k: MPR Classical (338,500 listeners/week), MPR News (485,800 listeners/week), and The Current (180,500 listeners/week). The latter, which mainly features eclectic rock along with jazz, conceptual hip-hop, local indie artists, and offbeat music that does not make it into the mainstream top 40, attracts a young audience whose average age is 30.

MPR's Preston Wright hopes that, in the long run, The Current will serve as a gateway, attracting younger listeners to MPR's classical and news programming. He also hopes that it will eventually attract more people to the high end.

"You never know where tomorrow's group of classical public radio listeners is going to come from," he says. "I read recently that video game makers are now spending large parts of their budgets hiring full orchestras to record their soundtracks. Video gamers are also high-fidelity enthusiasts; the current trend is to purchase a 7.1 speaker system to go with your computer or gaming console. It's this group of gamers that might well be the ones to demand high-quality formats of classical music as they move into higher income brackets."