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VirtualcropIt’s a crisp winter’s morning in the bikini capital of Australia and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) is performing to a small audience in the gallery at the Arts Centre Gold Coast. This, however, is no ordinary concert: this is ACO Virtual.

Richard Tognetti appears as a silhouette clutching a violin against a beam of blue light. Then, with the first brilliant notes of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G Major (BWV 1048), the head of the ACO is illuminated, plying his strings, knees bending to the ebbs and flows of the music.

Tognetti is among thirteen members of the orchestra who have been filmed playing Bach, Grieg, Roger Smalley and Piazzolla  for a new thirty-minute digital media installation. Footage of the players is projected on to the walls of the gallery. Each musician is heard playing from a speaker next to their projection. All the sounds culminate in an orchestra. “You get something you can never get in a concert hall,” says ACO general manager Timothy Calnin. “You get the experience of standing inside the orchestra.”

Listening to the music is just one facet of the performance. A mobile phone application created for the installation can be used to identify the players and display profiles on their instruments. The audience can also control the performance using a tablet, which rests on a plinth in the gallery and alters the volume and focus of the installation. For example, tapping on the icon of cellist Timo-Veikko Valve playing an excerpt of Smalley’s Strung Out puts him in the spotlight by blacking out the other musicians and muffling the sounds of their instruments. Another function activates a roll of sheet music at the foot of the projections corresponding to the notes being played by the musicians. “For a violin student it’s a really exciting interactive musical opportunity,” Calnin says. “[For example] you could learn the first violin part by watching the way Richard plays it.”

ACO Virtual started life three years ago as a way of expanding the orchestra’s reach to regional areas. Calnin says that each year the orchestra plays about ninety subscription concerts across the country with its main arm and visits at least two states with its touring arm ACO2. Still, there are areas, such as southwest Western Australia, the orchestra only visits once every four years. “We were trying to figure out a way to offer a really worthwhile experience of the orchestra in places we couldn’t get to every year,” Calnin says. “So this idea evolved of an immersive interactive installation of the orchestra.”

The orchestra approached Mod Productions, an interactive media company in Sydney, about creating a “virtual” tour of the players using live performance footage. Mod director Michela Ledwidge says the first thing she did was plonk herself on the floor of the ACO studios in Sydney to listen to the musicians rehearsing. Sitting just a few feet away from the musicians, Ledwidge was amazed at their skill and dexterity. She also realized few people were able to get this close to the orchestra.”No matter how good your seats are, the concert hall ticket-goer never gets to experience a chamber orchestra like this,” she says. “The project started with a very simple idea. We wanted to give people the privilege of standing in the midst of some of the world’s top classical musicians.”

Ledwidge filmed and recorded the orchestra playing at Fox Studios in Sydney. She spaced the musicians 2.5m apart and set separate microphones on their instruments. This has allowed audiences to isolate the different players in the installation.

At the Arts Centre, John Hibberd, a community radio station manager, soaks up the music. Hibberd says he is impressed with the installation. The 72-year-old has downloaded the ACO Virtual application on his phone and holds it up near the projection of Valve. As he is scrolling his finger across the screen, a smile breaks out on his face. “Here you go,” he says, pointing at an image of the cellist on the device. “That’s him.”

– The Australian