January 24, 2024

Princeton University Concerts Presents Revolutionary Virtual Reality Experience

By Nancy Plum

Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a collective of players from around the world, has been heard in Princeton in the past, dating back to before the pandemic. Last weekend, Princeton University Concerts presented the renowned ensemble in a ground-breaking format of an immersive virtual installation. For four days, the public had the opportunity to be part of a multi-dimensional orchestral world as the Chamber Orchestra presented works of Mozart, Ives, and Mendelssohn, conveyed to listeners via headsets including a display screen, stereo sound, and sensors. The 45-minute concert was part of the Chamber Orchestra’s “Future Presence” project, a virtual reality initiative to enable fluid dynamic interaction among listeners, music, and performers.

Designed by 3D sound specialist Henrik Oppermann in collaboration with Mahler Chamber Orchestra, “Future Presence” is an ongoing experiment allowing participants to escape into a reality in which the listener has freedom to explore the concert in an individual way. On each of the four days, 100 people journeyed four at a time through two rooms in the University’s Woolworth Center of Musical Studies to hear the Chamber Orchestra with visual images of the players in pixels. Assisting were staff from the departments of both music and mechanical and aerospace engineering, Richardson Auditorium, Stokes Library, and Office of Campus Engagement, showing the range of boundaries that the arts can cross.

The repertoire selected by Mahler Chamber Orchestra combined some of the players’ favorite pieces with works that adapted well to a spatial sound event. The elegant instrumental lines of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charles Ives’ treatment of distance and space as compositional devices and the musical narrative of Mendelssohn came together to create an experience in which audience members enter a theater of sound through the “hard plastic and silicon” of a digital device.

The concert opened with a movement from Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor, a work with comforting melodic lines which would no doubt ease any apprehension of the audience. Listeners entered the visual backdrop of a stark brick German church to find themselves in the midst of two violinists, two violas, and one cello playing in an arc. The playing of the opening “Allegro” of the Quintet showed the independent voices of these instruments as well as their dark harmonic color.

Ives’ Unanswered Question, with three groups of performers placed separately in the digital space and playing in different tempos, lent itself well to virtual reality treatment. In the Chamber Orchestra’s presentation, the listener stood in the center of a virtual auditorium with a string quartet on a stage in front playing slow quiet chords. To the right, a quartet of flutes played six increasingly complex repetitions of “Fighting Answerers” against a questioning solo trumpet—dissonant passages repeated until the flutists seemingly gave up trying to make their point. Across the space, a solo trumpet played the “Perennial Question of Existence” from a number of locations, as if looking for the answer. Flutists and trumpeter appeared and disappeared while the string quartet remained constant. Ives’ early 20th-century piece was a creative impetus for the creation of “Future Presence;” designer Oppermann credits Leonard Bernstein’s 1973 Harvard lectures on Ives’ work as an inspiration for this project.

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was an illusion of theater at its best. Full of royal characters, fairies, and donkeys, the play blurred the borders between reality and imagination. Felix Mendelssohn composed works inspired by the play as early as an overture at age 18, with a later full score of incidental pieces for a production. Through Mendelssohn’s “Overture” to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, four listeners at a time were able to walk among the pixeled Mahler Chamber Orchestra players, lean into an instrument to explore its sound further or soak in the overall texture surrounded by virtual stars. Orchestral effects and nuances were more audible than in a live hall, including a player’s cough which likely would not have been noticed by the audience. While journeying through the conductor-less ensemble, music came from all sides and Mendelssohn’s treatment of Shakespeare’s characters was clear.

Accompanying the digital performance were exhibits enhancing the event, including a film of Bernstein’s Unanswered Question lecture and essays on the digital treatment of music. This was a concert experience unlike any other most Princeton audience members would have encountered before, and one which broke down more than a few barriers among performing, technology, and the unknown.

Princeton University Concerts will present its next event on Wednesday, January 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Richardson Auditorium, featuring pianist Hélène Grimaud playing works of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach. Ticket information can be obtained by visiting concerts.princeton.edu.