Classical music lovers have been oohing and aahing over the new Apple campaign featuring Esa-Pekka Salonen extolling the merits of the iPad as a device for composition and music learning. An elegant TV ad shows Salonen going from a moment of musical inspiration (while shaving, no less) to a completed violin concerto, aided all along by his handy iPad.
The New Yorker's Alex Ross notes that "Salonen's enthusiasm for Apple products is genuine. When I wrote a Profile of him, in 2007, I began with an extended scene at the Santa Monica Apple Store, where he demontrated how he used various kinds of software to compose. He is now being rewarded with an extraordinarily powerful platform: in less than a day, the ad racked up a hundred thousand views on YouTube, and there is an auxiliary page of videos on the Apple Web site."
On Apple's site, Salonen specifically enthuses over an app called The Orchestra, developed by Touch Press in collaboration with the Music Sales Group and Salonen, who conducts the several orchestral passages heard in the app — and is seen, on video in the app, doing so. I decided to give the app a try. It's not free — in fact, it's $9.99 — but great Gershwin's ghost, is it ever a slick package.
The app allows you to choose among excerpts from eight compositions, ranging chronologically from Haydn's sixth symphony to Salonen's own violin concerto. While you listen to each selection, you're allowed to explore the music in several ways: you can watch a guide line run through the full score, you can listen to commentaries from Salonen and his musicians, and you can watch the dynamics of the music visualized on a map of the orchestra, over which you can run your finger to hear specific sections. Further, there are specific pages for each instrument in the orchestra; you can read about the instrument and sample its range by running your finger up and down a little keyboard. (I spent a long time banging away at the virtual timpani.)
The Orchestra app is certainly fun to play with; how many users will really dig in and absorb all the content is an open question. It's also unclear to what extent technology like this can help to overcome the prejudice Salonen identifies on the Apple site: "There is this idea that it's something for old people. You have to behave in a certain way, you have to wear certain types of clothes, you have to be kind of hopelessly boring." The Orchestra app certainly isn't boring, but it does have more than a whiff of this-is-good-for-you about it — and the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra did wear their Sunday best to the recording sessions.
There's also the fact that iPads cost at least a couple hundred dollars, and the app costs ten bucks...so even with some investment by educational institutions, this technology isn't going to break down classical music's class barriers overnight. What it does do, though, is to give the audience an unprecedented look under the hood of a symphony orchestra, to see what marvelous complexity underlies a professional orchestra's polished sheen.