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L.A. Philharmonic Turns to Virtual Reality to Take Beethoven Everywhere

Imagine you are at a performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra — but not in the audience. Instead, you’re in the middle of the action, right between conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his orchestra as they launch into Beethoven’s 5th. Take a look to the left, and you see Dudamel up close.

Turn around, and you get to see the entire orchestra, just like Dudamel sees them when he conducts. Look up, and you suddenly get to watch those sounds come alive with computer-generated visualizations that tell the story of the iconic symphony.

That’s the experience the L.A. Phil want to bring to the world with a new virtual reality (VR) app that’s being released for he Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR headsets this week. “A big part of this project is finding new audiences with this platform,” said Amy Seidenwurm, the L.A. Phil’s director of digital initiatives during a recent interview. The orchestra wants to use new technology to reach people who aren’t likely to watch it perform live, and may have little exposure to classical music, she explained.

To that effect, the L.A. Phil is going even further, and taking the show on the road: The orchestra has built out a truck, dubbed Van Beethoven, that’s scheduled to visit school yards, parks, museums and other public places in the coming five weeks. The van is loaded with the same chairs and carpet used in the Los Angeles concert hall, plus a handful of Gear VR headsets. The goal: to reach between 20,000 and 50,000 Angelenos and let them experience Beethoven up close.

The L.A. Phil first started toying with the idea to use VR this way in March. In May, it shot the performance together with Los Angeles-based digital agency Secret Location. “We are considering this an experiment,” said Seidenwurm, adding that the orchestra would be open to doing more VR in the future.

Which begs the question: How long will it take until music fans just reach for their headset instead of going to see an orchestra play live? “I don’t think it’s ever going to be a substitute for a live concert,” said Seidenwurm. However, she didn’t want to rule out the possibility that it could become an essential tool to casting a wider net.

The L.A. Phil and other orchestras have already broadcast performances to movie theaters around the world, giving music fans a way to enjoy classical compositions in a slightly more casual setting, and over greater distances. Eventually, VR could become a similar extension. Seidenwurm mused that it could even one day allow for more interactive experiences, allowing viewers to hone in on just one instrument and deconstruct a composition from the comfort of their own couch.

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