Moments after ascending the podium at the Reading Symphony Orchestra’s Oct. 11 season-opening concert, music director and conductor Andrew Constantine waved a smartphone at the audience. It’s a gesture now familiar to concertgoers everywhere, who of course expected to be gently admonished on the dire consequences of not turning off any and all electronic devices immediately, if not sooner.
Instead, Constantine encouraged the large audience at Santander Performing Arts Center to download a free app called EnCue on their mobile devices during intermission, and to use the app for the orchestra’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, during which they could get real-time program notes and images.
Is what Constantine held aloft that evening an inspired way of attracting multitasking millennials and other newbies to classical concerts, or just another distraction to concert-going purists?
Classical music aficionados aren’t exactly known as early adopters of new technology. So it’s no surprise that EnCue, a product of the Baltimore software company Octava, has been raising classical eyebrows since its first U.S. trials in 2015 by the National Orchestral Institute in College Park, Md. Octava co-founder Linda Dusman and Eric Smallwood, both faculty members at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, started the project in 2011, “to honor performance and the moment, and not be a distraction,” Smallwood has said.
Shortly after the National Orchestra trials, the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston became the first professional orchestra to officially premiere the app. And in spring 2017, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was the first to use EnCue in Britain, at London’s Cadogan Hall. Audience response was so positive that both organizations gave EnCue a major role in their future programming.
Constantine, who also conducts the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, joined the Reading Symphony in 2007. After coming to the U.S. in 2004 from his native Britain, he served as associate concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony for three years, following an appointment by its then-conductor Yuri Temirkanov. He used EnCue for the first time with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic at that orchestra’s opening concert Oct. 7, and again with the Reading Symphony Orchestra the following week.
It was a bold move for an orchestra that lacks the demographic breadth of a large-city organization. But the Reading Symphony, now in its 105th season, has been defying the odds from its first concert in 1913, when it flew in the face of convention by presenting a program on a Sunday that challenged Pennsylvania’s strict Blue Laws.
“When I floated the EnCue idea at a meeting of our board, the level of enthusiasm was enormous,” Constantine says. “I’m very proud of them.”
Many orchestras here and abroad either are actively experimenting with some form of real-time program note technology, or at least cautiously watching those who have. In 2014, the Philadelphia Orchestra started trials of LiveNote, an interactive concert guide for mobile devices.
Developed at Drexel University in collaboration with InstantEncore, a provider of mobile solutions for performing arts organizations, the app works on a closed WiFi connection in the orchestra’s Verizon Hall home. The orchestra will launch the latest version of the software, LiveNote2, early this year. Accessible from standard cellular connections, it is similar to EnCue.
Allentown Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor Diane Wittry heard a talk given by one of the developers of the LiveNote app at a Conductor’s Guild conference last year.
“It got me thinking that as an orchestra, we’ve got to be constantly changing and adapting to changing cultures. We’re looking into ways we can reach out to the next generation, and I’m looking into using either EnCue or LiveNote in the very near future,” she says.
Running EnCue is surprisingly simple. After the app is downloaded, it will run automatically, with the conductor’s or a musician’s comments appearing at precise moments in the music. Images such as a section of the score, a photo of a soloist, or anything else, might also appear. You can scroll back to reread something you might have missed, then re-synch at any time with the touch of a button.
Constantine’s wife, Jane, was one of those who attended EnCue’s test run in College Park. “She really enjoyed it. That first got my interest, and soon afterward I found out that a friend of mine was involved in developing it. I contacted him, found out more about it, and thought it would be right up my street,” Constantine says. “I was very surprised to learn that they had problems getting conductors to buy into it.”
Many orchestras are still on the fence regarding the new technology. The biggest issue, Constantine says, is the perception that such apps are a distraction, both to users and those around them.
“Actually, I think it embraces the listening experience, rather than distract from it. I think it offers a unique potential for giving people greater insight into a piece as they hear it, especially when you combine it with images. It becomes sort of a personal narrative from the point of view of the conductor or any member of the orchestra,” he says. “And if they choose not to engage with it, that’s fine.”
EnCue marketing director Anjan Shah has seen stronger adaptation of the new technology in Europe than in the U.S. “I think the folks in Europe tend to be a little more progressive in allowing technology in, and are much more willing to take risks with their audiences,” he says. Of the 20 or so orchestras that have tried it, about half have committed to long-term use over their entire season, he says.
So what’s wrong with traditional printed program notes? “For one thing, when the lights go down, you can’t read them,” Constantine says. “A lot of people go to concerts with very little background information either on how a piece is prepared, or on the music itself. But printed program notes may or may not be in agreement with the way the program is actually being performed. I’ve read program notes I totally disagree with. This tool gives us a chance to give people a live commentary on what’s happening at any given moment, and why it sounds the way it does. There’s so much opportunity here for so many thoughts that go unsaid in the traditional way.”
Says Shah, “We like to use the analogy ‘having Beethoven whisper in your ear.’ For so long, the history of live musical performance, at least on the classical side, has been very one-dimensional. There are people on the stage, and it’s up to you as an audience member to figure out how to bring yourself to that experience,” he says. “We’re trying to break down that barrier. It’s like when a character in a film talks to the camera — you get the sensation they’re talking directly to you. So here you have, say, Andrew or a musician talking to me about what he thinks of this music at exactly the same time I’m hearing it. It can be such a rich experience.”
Shah says the difference between EnCue and LiveNote seems to be more philosophical than technical.
“As I understand it, LiveNote started with the Grout History of Western Music, a huge encyclopedia of music, as its basis. I think their app is rich in information, but not necessarily curated to the exact performance one might be hearing,” he says. “We started EnCue with the basic notion of fostering a personal relationship with the composer or musician or conductor. We don’t necessarily want to give the entire history of the period in which a specific piece was written, or a dictionary of musical terms.”
Organizations that sign up with EnCue can create their own presentations. Putting together such a narrative takes a lot of a conductor’s time, so the Reading Symphony can’t offer it at every program, and when it does, only for the headline work. The cost to the orchestra varies, but runs about $300 per piece in which the app is used. In addition, there has to be someone in the hall who is driving the change of narrative and synching it with the performance. Such a person has to be knowledgeable about the music, be able to read the score, and familiar with the technology.
“Ideally, an organization can become familiar with how the system operates, so you don’t need somebody there all the time troubleshooting,” Constantine says.
The next time Constantine plans to use the app is the orchestra’s March 3 concert, called “Soaring Strings,” which will feature Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5.
But isn’t that bright glow from a smartphone screen distracting to those around it? “Very little light is emitted from the EnCue app screen – it’s basically gray lettering on a dark purple background. They call it ‘dark screen technology,’ and I love it. It’s not distracting at all,” Constantine says. “I guarantee you the person behind you snoring is going to disturb you more than that screen.”
While the technology might even put an end to fumbling with flashlights in an attempt to read program notes in the dark, annoyances such as perpetual coughing or crinkling candy wrappers will have to wait for future apps to address.
Many organizations are reluctant to use the technology because they think their halls need robust WiFi capability with huge bandwidth to employ it. That may be due to the mistaken belief that the process involves some sort of video streaming, which it does not.
“It’s actually very cheap to use, and requires very little bandwidth. In fact, it’s best to use without WiFi, and we encourage people to use their own networks, since the data usage and cost is minimal,” Constantine says.
It is only in rare cases that issues arise, such as in halls that have poor cellphone reception. “The London Symphony, who is using it, have had to invest in a lot of WiFi hardware, since Barbican Hall is practically a nuclear bunker with so much concrete that cell service is negligible,” Constantine says.
EnCue’s marketing is specifically aimed toward new and potentially younger audiences. That makes sense, since it has a special appeal to a the smartphone generation that uses them as a prime source of information. Yet the actual demographic spread of potential users is quite surprising.
“A survey we conducted after the Fort Wayne concert indicated that about 13 percent of the audience used EnCue during the performance, and the largest demographic was the 64- to 75-year-old age group,” Constantine says. “There were even a couple of people over 75. So I don’t think we really have to worry about it appealing to a narrow age group.”
The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra reports it had a 91-year-old woman show up an hour early to a concert just to be sure she could download the app and use it without distraction.
Shah is not surprised with such survey results. “Of course, the present demographics of the classical audience will tend to skew the results to a higher age group — the lower age group is still a minority,” he says. The idea is to change that spread, which he hopes EnCue will accomplish. “Both the Royal Philharmonic and the London Philharmonic concert series that have scheduled EnCue are designed for new audiences, primarily going after the younger demographic,” says Shah.
Akiko Strum of Fleetwood is a frequent Reading Symphony concertgoer who used EnCue for the first time at the orchestra’s opening program. At 34, she’s well within EnCue’s target age group.
“I really didn’t know what to expect. It turned out I loved it. I discovered that the concert experience is different when you find out what a composer has in mind in each section, like why is this piece significant, why is there a waltz here, why should I be paying attention there. It brings it to a whole new level, it gets you more involved,” she says.
Strum also liked the dark screen. “It’s really only light when you’re going into the App Store or Google Play to download it. In use, it didn’t seem distracting at all. My husband and I were looking over the crowd from our box and didn’t notice a lot of screens lit up,” Strum says.
Her biggest surprise was its ease of use. “It’s unbelievably user-friendly. Once you install it and find your symphony, and once the program starts, it just automatically changes slides in synch with the music. There’s no learning curve — you open it, and it works.”
Nevertheless, anticipating that there might be some slow learners in the older set, the Reading Symphony enlisted members of its Youth Orchestra to be available in the lobby to help people navigate the system. Now there’s an unexpected paradigm: teenagers showing adults how they can get more out of a classical concert-going experience.
Constantine stresses that a degree of pre-concert marketing is essential to remind concertgoers to download the app in advance. The Reading Symphony announced its first trial by fliers, in its fall newsletter and on its Facebook page, which carried a link to a YouTube video of Constantine explaining what to expect.
Some orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic, provide a dedicated seating area for EnCue users, the idea being that by doing so they won’t distract non-users. Constantine feels otherwise. “We let it happen anywhere in the hall. It’s true that some organizations do corral users and put them in a sort of hi-tech part of the hall and thereby isolate them. I don’t see any need for doing that. It seems a bit like corralling smokers and putting them in the back of a plane or a bus. This isn’t a discriminating process,” he says.
Unlike Constantine, Allentown’s Wittry favors the idea of a separate seating area for app users. “If we do go in that direction, we’d probably block out an area in Miller Symphony Hall so that people with their phones wouldn’t distract from those who don’t want to be involved with this technology,” she says. “That might be an area under the balcony or mezzanine, the first floor toward the back, or maybe the top balcony.”
Far from seeing this as a form of segregation, Wittry is looking ahead to the social aspects of such a seating plan. “Eventually, I’d like to see what I call a whole new generation of symphony concertgoers who will want to sit in the same section of the hall, know they’ll run into other young people there, and find a place they’ll feel comfortable in,” she says. “We might even consider using college interns to help build the digital media content. That would give the younger generation yet another opportunity to be personally involved with the symphonic experience.”
Separate seating areas might pose some interesting challenges for the box office. Would those areas include reserved seats, or would they be general admission? Could someone sit up front for the first half of a concert, which might not feature the app, and then move into an “app area” for the second half? Should the entire hall be general admission whenever an app is used?
Of course, given a privilege, there’s always someone who will misuse it. Says Wittry, “I want to be cautious and don’t want to see people in there surfing the web or checking their email. That’s totally against what we’re trying to accomplish.” Such misuse would be hard to conceal, since the EnCue screen looks so much different than other apps. And who knows, users might even discover from their Encue notes that the story behind, say, Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” is a lot more intriguing than their own email.
“There still are a lot of naysayers, but I think as the use of this technology grows and develops, we’re going to have a lot to offer new potential audience members. Now more than ever, we can’t afford to build barriers,” Constantine says. “This is a way of knocking barriers down.”
By Steve Siegel