The most creative publisher of apps for iPad today is Touch Press, responsible for such works as The Waste Land, X is for X-Ray, Barefoot World Atlas, Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy, and Theodore Gray’s remarkable The Elements. Their latest triumph is The Orchestra, a rich, expansive exposition on symphonic classical music featuring the principal conductor of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra Esa-Pekka Salonen and the musicians of the orchestra. The work features the performance by the orchestra of 8 great works of symphonic music, not entire compositions, which would make it expansive indeed, but restricted movements from symphonic works in some cases: the first movement from Haydn’s Symphony 6 (play time 4:11—written in 1761); the final movement from Beethoven’s Symphony 5 (4:14—1808); the fourth movement of Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique (4:37—1830); Debussy’s Prélude À L’Après Midi D’Un Faune (10:28—1894); a selection from the exposition in the first movement of Mahler’s massive “Tragic” Symphony 6 (5:03—1906); a selection from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, beginning with the Aparition de l’Oiseau de feu and featuring the famous Danse infernale (6:00—1910); the second (vivace) movement from Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra (6:38—1954); and the Pulse I and Pulse II (movements 2 and 3) of Salonen’s own Violin Concerto (8:49—2009). This brief trailer will give a peek at what the app is all about…
but it doesn’t nearly do justice to just how good it is.
The app’s home screen is a menu to the featured works, a video of the orchestra playing parts of the works, and a link to a unique feature called “Sections & Instruments,” and an “About” bar with links to a shop and the various parties who cooperated in the production of the app.
Tapping on any of the featured works across the menu, or tapping the video while playing one of the works, will load a screen featuring multiple video views of the work being played, with options to turn on audio, wirtten, or both comments from the director (Salonen) or many of the musicians performing on the piece. It also shows a score of the piece being played, either in a full or “curated” version showing only the principal instruments currently performing (a wonderful achievement, in my view). For the Haydn piece viewing the full score onscreen in reduced size is easy, with the Stravinsky piece, impossible because of it’s size. That’s where the curated score shines. A stationary red “playhead” appears on screen as the score moves beneath it in sync with the music, and in sync with the videos in the top portion of the screen.
The orchestral sound is outstanding, as should be expected. The commentary by Salonen (long time director of the L.A. Philharmonic) is erudite and comprehensive, while the commentary by the musicians is more personable and downright fun. The ability to turn on synchronized captioning of the commentary is wonderful. A unique aspect of the video is an animated set of dots (see the upper right video illustrated above) representing the instruments in the orchestra that glow and enlarge as the instrument plays, a sort of intensity visualization of the work being played, if you will. Note also the ability to turn on musical patterns (the control to the right above the score) rather than notation. For those who do not read music this might be preferable. There is also written text that accompanies each piece by Mark Swed, chief classic music critic of the Los Angeles Times. What is best about the written text is that when it is discussing the works being played by the orchestra, links in the text referring to the music actually jump to the part of the music being discussed, so you can hear exactly what the author means. Also accompanying each written description is a video by Salonen on conducting the works of the particular composer being considered.
Salonen’s own composition is also accompanied by a video by the virtuoso Leila Josefowicz titled “On playing Salonen” which gives insight into how a dedicated, inspired musician approaches a piece of new music.
The section on Instruments & Sections is where you will want to go if you are new to orchestral instruments, are working with a young person who does not know them well, or just want to have the fun of watching the videos of great performers discussing their instruments.
Tap the bassoon and you come to a page that has a video of principal bassoonist Amy Harman demonstrating the range of the bassoon, can examine a 3D model of a bassoon, which you can spin about and enlarge to see in detail, read about the instrument, and see its range on a keyboard, which plays as you touch it. Because this app is so media rich it takes a staggering 2GB of storage on your iPad, but it is worth it. Delete something to fit it on.
I cannot recommend an app more highly than this one for pure entertainment, as a learning tool, and as an example of the interactive elegance that can be achieved in an iPad app. I give it six stars out of five possible. It contains hours of edutainment, and could only be improved by including entire symphonic works, rather than single movements (the Debussy piece is the only one presented in its entirety). One hopes that symphony directors will take note. Wouldn’t it be great if this were the beginning of a trend where with the (very) high price of a ticket to the symphony one could also receive the right to download an app like this one with the works being performed being discussed by the director and musicians? The cost of this app is $13.99, which is high by app standards, but in line with the other very high quality apps being sold by Touch Press, but well worth it in every way, and only a small portion of what you would have to pay for a concert, a lecture, or a glossy book illustrating musical instruments. It’s a steal at the price. I can see an app like this fitting perfectly into the curriculum of a music appreciation or music history class, and hope it finds a home on every music lover’s iPad.