Boston Symphony's Casual Fridays — A 'Concert-plus' Experience Thanks to Innovative Tech

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday November 22, 2019

Symphony Hall might seem to be the least likely venue in Boston to embrace interactive technology. You would hardly expect the distracting glare of a smartphone to appear in the hall, whose splendid acoustics have made it the ideal home for the Boston Symphony Orchestra for more than a century. But on four Friday nights over the orchestra's season (the first being this Friday night), the innovative concert series Casual Fridays offers audience members to use their smartphones during a performance. Not throughout the hall, of course, but restricted to the rear rows of the floor.

In this area smartphone use is encouraged, facilitated by an app developed by MIT professor Eran Egozy, called ConcertCue that allows users to explore a piece of music in real time while the orchestra plays it. This week it is "My River runs to thee...", a world premiere by commissioned by the orchestra, by Latvian composer Arturs Maskats. In addition, audience members can get a unique perspective of the orchestra with Conductor Cam, which offers a musician-eyed view of conductor Andris Nelsons as he guides them through the concert that also includes two other works.

"It is a shorter program without an intermission," explains Alexandra Fuchs, the orchestra's Chief Operating Officer "This week, there is one piece on Thursday, Saturday and next Tuesday's program that is not being performed Friday. The program on Friday includes a world premiere, the Tchaikovsky violin concerto performed by an 18-year-old Daniel Lozakovich making his debut in a subscription series, and Shostakovich Symphony No. 2, 'To October,' with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus which the BSO has never before played in Symphony Hall."

A musician's-eye view

Conductor Cam offers a musician's eye-view of the concert through the use of cameras placed on the stage that are broadcast to monitors placed in the rear of the hall and in the second balcony. "You can literally watch the conductor as though you were on the stage sitting in the orchestra," explains Fuchs. "You are seeing his or her face (in this case his face, the conductor Friday being Andris Nelsons) and get a glimpse into how things look for the musicians, you see all the nuances, expressions and interactions of the conductor. It is fun for audience members, music students, anyone can enjoy that experience."

In addition, Casual Fridays offer the opportunity for audience members to socialize in the hall's public spaces before and after the concert, beforehand with snacks and afterward with drinks and a band at which some of the musicians are on hand to socialize.

Another innovation of Casual Fridays from their start in January 2016 is a talk from one of the orchestra's personnel from the stage at the concert's onset. This week it will be violinist James Cooke, who may talk on any subject of his choosing "This connects the audience with the orchestra in a way that normally doesn't happen at the start of a concert," says Fuchs. "We never quite know what they are going to talk about. Sometimes it's about their past, becoming a professional musician. Sometimes it's about what they're excited about that evening - a performer or a piece. It personalizes and connects the audience to the players on the stage."

A wonderful concept

It is that connection that has made Casual Fridays so special. Ms. Fuchs experienced it before she joined the orchestra two years ago. "I attended one before I started working at the Symphony. I thought it was a wonderful concept. There is a different energy in the hall. It is very social. It really feels casual and welcoming. People are coming not only for the music, but for the whole experience of being here. It is sort of a concert-plus."

Certainly those pluses are these tech features, which Ms. Fuchs has experienced first hand. "I love sitting in the back," she says. "I love watching the conductor's expression. It is much more interesting to see the conductor's face, as opposed to seeing arms move, that back of a head and a baton. You can still peek around the screen and see the musicians, but to see what the conductor does that evokes the response is fascinating - how that creates a musical response from the musicians.

"And ConcertCue is an online tool, an interactive program that gives you notes about the program, the piece of music, so you can learn more as you are listening to it. You can either go to and read it on your smartphone, or you can see it on a split screen with the Conductor Cam. I find it interesting and fun because I learn about the piece of music and how it is constructed, sometimes there is context about the time period in which the piece was written or about the composer, all things I otherwise wouldn't know."

Part of the evolving nature of Casual Fridays was the introduction of new features, such one introduced last year, the Instrument Bar, which allows concertgoers to explore new sounds and try out instruments before they take their seats.

For the Conductor Cam to work involves the help of another member of the Symphony staff - video engineer Brandon Carley, who controls the camera movement from a room beneath the hall. The cameras (the size of a human head, Carley explains) sit on the stage - one in the organ loft - to give this unique perspective on the conductor. "I work in a control room in the basement and control everything remotely from there, so I can pan and zoom in," he explains.

A seamless experience

He also helped develop the use of a split-screen on the monitors, which allows concertgoers to experience both the Conductor Cam and ConcertCue simultaneously. "We started working with the developers behind ConcertCue and started experimenting with integrating it onto the actual screens that we are putting up for Conductor Cam, so you can see the program notes on the screen next to the conductor. We are trying to make it a more seamless experience to make it a richer one."

Having attended a number of these concerts over the past few seasons, I can attest that while the age range of the audience runs from young to old. Casual Fridays skews to a younger demographic. Fuchs agrees. "It makes for a fun date night, or for a group of friends. The concept of Symphony being casual is appealing to people who might think otherwise, assuming that concert-going requires dressing up and being more formal. This different approach helps draw a younger audience."

While stories abound of theater and concert performances being interrupted by the use of smartphones, the response to the use of them at Casual Fridays has largely been positive, from the audience to the orchestra personnel. "The conversations I have had with orchestra members throughout the last couple of years, everybody is supportive of all the different pushes that we are doing to bring classical music into the modern, digital era," explains Carley. "They see the value of it, and see how we are bringing something different to the audience with Casual Fridays. Conductor Cam and ConcertCue only elevate the experience for both the orchestra and the audience."

Little negative response

Fuchs agrees, saying that there has been little negative response. "That is why we kept the tech section in the back area and people know if they are sitting there, there are screens and people will be on their phones. People sitting in the front don't experience any disruption. I think some people like a shorter concert and not having an intermission because it is preferable for their lifestyle and they enjoy the social aspects of the evening. People who don't like this formula wouldn't come to these concerts."

Its growing success has led to the orchestra expanding Casual Fridays to four concerts this season. (Click here to learn more about it.) "Feedback has been very positive," adds Fuchs. "The number of subscribers (some 500) to this program has been growing each year and people who come, often for their first time, often deciding at the last minute, love the whole feel of it. I think we get a broader age range. People sometimes bring older kids. Some of that is also due to the price point being lower with tickets ranging from $35 to $59."

And the only tech issue came when someone in the audience turned off one of the monitors before the concert. Carley recalls, "It seems silly, but there was one where someone had turned the monitor off before the show. I got a call and I ran upstairs and figured out what was going on. And just had to turn the monitor back on, so that one was pretty simple."

In many ways, Casual Fridays are indicative of how major orchestras throughout the country are embracing new technology and incorporating it into their concerts. "We can't keep doing the same thing and assume that we will continue to connect and build our audience," says Fuchs. "It is a great tool to engage people who may not be as comfortable with the normal structure of going to a concert. The Casual Fridays are appealing because of all the elements we talked about. The tech space, hearing a musician speak, the reception pre-concert, the food and drink and music after. All those components can draw new audience members and make it a different experience. You are still getting a world-class orchestra in one of the best acoustical halls in the world playing the same phenomenal repertoire. The core of the concert is the same, but the way in which you experience it — the start and the end of the evening and the tech aspects — is what makes it unique."

For more information about Casual Fridays at the Boston Symphony, (visit the Boston Symphony Orchestra website.<./i>

Watch this video about Casual Fridays::

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].