Mondavi, IET test ambitious concert multicasts

Sure, online video has become routine. But the multicast that a group of campus technicians tested this past winter at the Mondavi Center is not your basic YouTube snippet watched at lunch. This netcast is a high-definition live concert sent by the Philadelphia Orchestra, streaming at 20 megabytes per second to about 20 locations, and vivid enough to reveal a broken hair on a violinist's bow.

Violinist  Jennifer  Koh  of  The  Philadelphia  OrchestraViolinist Jennifer Koh of The Philadelphia Orchestra plays "The Singing Rooms" - Photo by Ryan Donnell/The Philadelphia Orchestra Association

The test group wants to see if the technology can work here. If it can, the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, the Department of Music, and other parts of campus could gain a sharp new way to present concerts and classes. People who work for Information and Educational Technology see potential uses for teaching, research and outreach.

"The big benefit is to know we could pull it off," said John Dorsey, who was director of facilities for the Mondavi Center until early March. (He is now the campus facilities director for The Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.) How to use the service hasn't been decided, he said, but "it's of a quality now where we consider it presentable."

Getting it presentable took some work. A test Jan. 25, watched on a large screen in the Studio Theatre by several specialists from the Mondavi Center and IET, yielded mixed results. The image and sound were good, but the video quality was poor. The screen froze intermittently and the audio often fell out of sync.

Technicians spent the next several weeks trouble- shooting various parts of the connection, including the signal stream to the campus, the campus network, and the Amino set-top box that received the signal. They eventually tried a separate fiber feed from the campus research network. That worked.

"We had another test of the orchestra Feb. 22," said Paul VerWey, media services manager in the Academic Technology Services unit of IET. "This time the test was perfect."

Seeing a Big Five season up close

Both the Mondavi Center and the Music Department are interested in using the technology to receive concerts and master classes for viewing and teaching, VerWey said. IET, especially its Communication Resources unit, is interested in using multicasting and the network to deliver television programming or other content.

"We are still researching our options for public showings of the Philadelphia Orchestra multicasts," said Jeremy Ganter, associate executive director of the Mondavi Center. "We've just scratched the surface of what might be possible. It's not hard for me to imagine a day when, from any distance, we could involve additional artists, lecturers and faculty in our master classes, pre-performance lectures and Forum@MC panel discussions."

"The Mondavi Center is about the live experience of the arts," Ganter said, "but the future holds great promise for enhancing what we do by integrating multicast technology into our programs."

Music professor D. Kern Holoman, who conducts the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, would like to receive the netcasts for Music 10 classes and to work with his symphony's musicians.

"We're intrinsically interested in the mutation of the orchestra, broadcast, and recording industries--and in this case their int ersection with technological advances that appear to have much to offer the end consumer," he said.

Holoman said that when the Philadelphia Orchestra approached the UC Davis orchestra about working together, he responded positively and immediately contacted the Mondavi Center. The Music Department has a history of using technology to support its work.

"I'm delighted by the notion that the symphony musicians can study a season of one of the Big Five up close and personal," Holoman said, "and, perhaps even more, that students in our general education classes will have additional cost-free options for studying serious classical music played by one of our nation's historic ensembles."

Back at the hall, high-def robot cams

The performances are part of The Philadelphia Orchestra's Global Concert Series, which began in April 2007. The orchestra employs seven high-definition robotic cameras at its home concert hall to transmit live shows to the venues.

The setup is mildly interactive. A program host offers live backstage commentary plus interviews with the conductor and musicians, and netcast audiences can ask performers questions by sending emails and instant messages.

Multicasts this large and ambitious are rare. At 20 megabytes, the signal stream is about 20 times larger than the average videoconference signal.

The netcast is a partnership between the Philadelphia orchestra and Internet2, a nonprofit consortium of more than 200 universities linked by a fast and advanced online network. The signal is carried by Internet2, which the orchestra accesses through a hub at the University of Pennsylvania.

The January concert started with "The Singing Rooms" composed by Jennifer Higdon, who acknowledged the netcast audience from the stage before the performance. The rece ption in the Mondavi's Studio Theatre was sharp enough to see the shine and grain of the violin played by featured musician Jennifer Koh.

VerWey said he heard about the netcast technology from Russ Hobby after IET helped support a videoconference for Internet2. (Hobby, chief technical architect of the End-To-End Performance Initiative for Internet2, became cyberinfrastructure program architect for UC Davis Feb. 1.) VerWey discussed the idea with Dorsey, who talked about it with Mondavi Executive Director Don Roth and others.

The Mondavi Center also used Internet2 last fall, Ganter said, to join a multi-site discussion with other presenters involved in the tour of L.A. Theatre Works' "Top Secret: The Battle for The Pentagon Papers." Artists, presenters, audiences, faculty and students talked about their experiences with the show.

The Philadelphia Orchestra claims several media firsts. They include being the first symphonic orchestra to make electrical recordings, in 1925, and the first major orchestra to give a live cybercast on the Internet in 1997.

The testing at UC Davis will continue. More work is needed before the multicasting could be available to the campus.