Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Orchestra: An App Review

The main menu of The Orchestra app.  You can select one of the eight featured pieces of music or tap on the right to enter the instrument section.  The app is highly visual and packed with plenty of facts and information to read as well.
Recently, as part of my birthday celebration, I treated myself to a couple of iPad apps pertaining to classical music. Anyone with any familiarity to this blog knows I have a strong curiosity for the classical music form. I recently completed a cycle of posts on what I consider to be the greatest symphonies ever composed.

But, as I admitted several times throughout those posts (and others on the subject of classical music) I am a musical amateur. I have never received any musical training. I taught myself to play the guitar in college. I am extremely mediocre. I can pick out a few tunes (mostly Christmas carols as it turns out) on an electric keyboard I have in my study. Of course, I have already reviewed the app, GarageBand. So, I dabble with chords and sounds without being able to read a single note of music.

I became slightly better educated with my recent purchase of two fantastic apps, Beethoven 9 and The Orchestra. Beethoven 9 features four masterful performances of the greatest symphony ever composed. The app allows you to switch between the four interpretations on the fly so you can hear how each is unique in some ways. In addition there is an entire section of video interviews and insights by various famous conductors, musicians, and music historians on why this particular composition is the pinnacle of the symphony.

But this post is focused more on the richness of the other app I purchased, The Orchestra. Before I review its many features I want to comment on what apps like this say about the future of education. As hopefully I will be able to convey, the presentation of knowledge in a user-friendly, visual and audio rich environment is an incredible experience. The face of education is evolving and The Orchestra shows us its future.

First of all, when you open the app the main menu offers you cycling music vignettes from the eight orchestral selections meant to exemplify the history of the western classical orchestra. The baroque period is not included because technically the symphonic orchestra (rather than the baroque orchestra) was established by Franz Joseph Haydn. His Symphony No. 6 is not a "towering" composition compared to some of the others on the app but it is representative of the period in which the symphonic form was being created, composed in 1761. It uses a noticeably smaller orchestra than the other pieces presented. With one exception, the app does not offer complete compositions, only representative sections and movements, usually lasting between 5 - 6 minutes each.

Each symphony presented in this app features a short lecture by conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, one of the main reasons I purchased the app. Salonen is someone I have followed for years. He was a knowledgeable conductor and remains a powerful composer of modern classical music. The embedded videos of his commentary on the significance of each piece are highly instructive.

Each featured piece of music also contains a short video lecture by Esa-Pekka Salonen giving the user insights into the unique nature of each musical composition and the various challenges in performing it.  In this case, there is also a video by the solo artist giving the performer's perspective on the composition.
From the birth of the symphony we move to Ludwig von Beethoven's wonderful Symphony No. 5. The Orchestra does not feature this symphony's famous opening. Instead we are treated to the splendid second half of the final movement. In his commentary Salonen points out that Beethoven beefed up certain sections of the orchestra. This delivered what was without question the loudest sound any symphonic audience had heard up to that time. It had a powerful effect on first-time listeners and inspired other composers after Beethoven to create works with big, gripping sonics.

The bigger-is-better philosophy continued in the next orchestral selection, the fourth movement of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Salonen claims that orchestras really reached that traditional size with this composition by Berlioz and this size is still the standard today with variations, of course, in exact instrumentation.

But an exception to this comes with the next selection, Claude Debussey's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It features a smaller orchestra, mostly toned-down brass. The piece is chiefly a flute concerto. Salonen says conducting Debussy "is like a little flower" - so delicate and beautiful. This is the app's only complete work, a bit over 10 minutes in length. It is also the first piece that is not a "symphony" by definition. This piece approximates the birth of modern classical music.

Next comes the opening to Gustav Mahler's monumental Symphony No. 6, one of my personal favorite compositions of classical music. According to the conductor, this piece represents the beginning of Mahler's "late period" of composition and serves as an excellent example of his emotional range, from pain to ecstasy and everything in between. There are marvelous moments of solo performances accentuated by the "massive" sound that makes Mahler such a powerful experience.

A five minute excerpt from Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird follows Mahler. Salonen points how complicated the composition is, demanding virtuosity from every player individually. It also makes the greatest demands upon the conductor keeping everything together. An excellent example of how modern compositions make extreme demands on everyone and yet the result is this magnificent work that is strangely macabre and lyrical. Stravinsky struggled with this composition for years after its premiere in 1910, offering slightly different versions of it. Salonen prefers this last iteration, from 1947.

One of the many reasons I chose to purchase this app is that Salonen includes a work by Witold Lutoslawski, a favored modern composer of mine. His Concerto for Orchestra opens with light violins in fast tempo with no pattern, very difficult to play. Many modern orchestral compositions contain multiple keyboard instruments. Here we have a grand piano and a celeste included. Salonen explains how these instruments actually assist the orchestra in defining a sharper quality sound with the blending of other instruments which might otherwise disintegrate into chaos.

We finish this tour with the short second and intensely energetic third movement to Salonen's own composition dating from 2009, his Violin Concerto; almost nine minutes of music out of what is in total a 29-minute work.  This is an outstanding piece of music which I hope to blog about in itself in the future. As far as this app is concerned, who better than the work's composer/conductor himself to explore the sophistication and truly wild, sometimes jazzy, sometimes rock-n-roll sounds? Very insightful stuff to a piece I really enjoy.

The primary performance screen.  You can follow the actual sheet music of the composition in perfect time with the music.  You can display the score in a "curated" view which only shows the instruments currently performing, or you can view the full score and see all instruments.  Four videos at the top give you the ability to watch what the musical notations signify in terms of performance.  From left to right: an overview of how the orchestra is laid out and which instruments are currently playing, next comes the conductor himself, then the primary solo artist, and finally supporting aspects of the orchestra.  The interface is completely customizable.  You can tap on the videos and watch them without the score.  You can drag and rearrange the sections of the screen to suit your tastes.  Finally, notice that you can play (or not) the commentary either by the conductor or the chief performers as you listen to the music, providing additional insight into each piece.
The app contains less than an hour of music altogether. But, considering all the commentaries and features, you easily have over three hours worth of exploration. Beyond this there is another section pertaining to all the instruments of the orchestra. The high-quality retina display of my iPad shows each instrument in great clarity and detail. When you select one from the instrument menu you get to turn it around with your finger and view it in a variety of angles. Meanwhile you can play a short video where a performer with the Philharmonia Orchestra tells you a bit about the history of their particular instrument as well as an overview of various ways the instrument is played to get its range of sound.
The main menu for the instruments.  Each rotates 360 degrees while you decide which one to view.  You may also select the conductor for insights into that important role.  A great overview of the history of the orchestra is also available. 

Here's the history and functionality of the violin.  A video by a Philharmonia performer provides insights.  There is a basic text overview provided along with samples of the individual instruments in the musical selections on the app.  A small keyboard shows you the sonic range of the instrument.  The keyboard is interactive.  You can tap out notes and simple chords to hear how the instrument sounds.

The instrument screen for the (French) horn.  Notice this instrument has a slightly greater range of sound compared with the violin above.
In addition you get a keyboard that is interactive, showing the full range of each instrument. In this way all instruments are musically comparable within the app. Some have wider keyboards than others. When you hit a key, however, you hear the instrument as it would sound in that key. Although the keys are rather small you can still play around with simple chords and notes and experience how the instrument sounds. A long academic text paragraph gives a written overview of each instrument. In this way the app has an encyclopedic quality.

The Orchestra is anything but an encyclopedic type app. As I said it is the future of the transmission of knowledge. It is not linear nor is it a presentation of knowledge by rote. Rather it is a complex array of facts and presentations and art that allows the user of learn and enjoy in whatever their particular preference for learning might be. In this way it accommodates all curriculum and all learning styles. While being directly exposed to what it attempts to teach, it allows the user to interact with the information and the music in whatever style the user prefers. We might all navigate this app differently but eventually all of us would end up with the same information. Again, this is the future of learning.

At $13.99 this is the most expensive app I have ever purchased for myPad. In relation to the price of most apps this seems exorbitant. But, when you consider a night out at the movies or a ball game or other forms of entertainment this is actually a bargain. It is something I can return to and which will bring me many houses of enjoyment as I broaden my appreciation of and understanding of classical music. The Orchestra is an innovative, great value for the investment.

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