This July, the Philharmonia's VR experience, The Virtual Orchestra, received its American premiere with audiences at Chicago's Ravinia Festival. Join Steph Clarke, the Orchestra's Digital Projects Manager, as she gives an insight into the occasion.
This July, I took a trip to Chicago to install the Philharmonia's Virtual Reality experience The Virtual Orchestra at Ravinia Festival, an outdoor music Festival just north of Downtown Chicago and west of the banks of Lake Michigan.
Having seen the project at its London launch in October 2016, Welz Kaufmann, the CEO of Ravinia, was keen to premiere the full-length experience in the US. Visitors to Ravinia Festival became the first to see the full third movement of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony in 360-degree virtual reality, watching Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Ravinia Festival takes place over the summer months from June until September. A mixture of pop, rock, jazz and classical concerts take place in its 3,400-seat open-air covered pavilion but the concerts can be heard throughout the 36 acre park so many concert-goers prefer to purchase “lawn tickets” where they can sit in the sun and soak-up the music and atmosphere with a picnic. I was impressed at the spectacular display of picnics I saw on my first concert evening. Visitors were set up for three-course dining. They had brought candelabras, champagne flutes, fine china – the works!
Ravinia is the oldest music festival in the US and has been the host to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1905 - they have been Orchestra in residence there every Summer since 1936. The opening of The Virtual Orchestra was timed to open at Ravinia the same day as the start of the Chicago Symphony residency.
Ravinia Festival was the first time we had the opportunity to showcase The Virtual Orchestra on PlayStation 4 PSVR and so some time was spent in London preparing all the equipment and designing custom plinths especially made to house the equipment. The set-up required four long days on site in heats of 33 degrees with 96% humidity but I was lucky to be able to overhear the rehearsals and soundchecks for the evening performances as I worked, including Sheryl Crow and CSO.
The Virtual Orchestra was very well received by Ravinia audiences with more than 800 visitors over the course of the week. We were even delighted to welcome pianist Yuja Wang and Conductor Lionel Bringuier – soloist and conductor for the opening night Chicago Symphony concert – before they took to the stage for their evening performance.
The hospitality I experienced at Ravinia and in the USA was excellent. Everyone I met during my trip offered advice and assistance. As I packed up the final box to ship back to London, the Ravinia staff extended their hospitality once more and invited me to a truly American experience – to watch the annual softball game between Ravinia Festival and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A long-standing contest, which the CSO have won for many years running. My cheering for Ravinia mustn’t have gone unnoticed as history was made this year and Ravinia won back the title, for this year at least.