Paul Henry Smith, a conductor who studied as a teen under Leonard Bernstein, hopes to pull off an ambitious performance next year: conducting three Beethoven symphonies back-to-back in a live concert. "Doing Beethoven's symphonies is how you prove your mettle," he says.You can test your ear by listening four samples, three of which are real orchestra, and one of which is entirely computerized.
But Mr. Smith's proof comes with the help of a computerized baton. He will use it to lead an "orchestra" with no musicians -- the product of a computer program designed by a former Vienna Philharmonic cellist and comprised of over a million recorded notes played by top musicians.
Amid all the troubles facing the classical music world in recent years -- from declining attendance to budget cuts -- none has mobilized musicians more than the emergence of computers that can stand in for performers. Musicians have battled with mixed success to keep them out of orchestra pits in theaters, ballets and opera houses. Now, a new alliance of conductors, musicians and engineers is taking a counterintuitive stance: that embracing the science is actually the best hope for keeping the art form vital and relevant. They say recent technological advances mean the music now sounds good enough to be played outside the touring musicals and Cirque du Soleil shows it is typically associated with.
Among their arguments: Aspiring composers who couldn't otherwise afford to have their creations performed by an orchestra can now commission a high-quality computer-generated recording for a fraction of the price. For communities facing the loss of their orchestra, it could be a way to keep performances in town -- even if it means a computer stands in for half the players.
This has, of course, resulted in no small amount of controversy in the classical music world. It cetainly seems like it would be a shame if this became a replacement for performances by live musicians with real instruments, but as a tool for allowing a composer to show what his music sounds like without spending the 50k+ to have a full size orchestra rehearse and perform the piece, it certainly seems to make a lot of sense.