PDAs Take a Seat at the Symphony

It happens in every classical music concert held in the United States. As soon as the conductor lifts his baton, an excitement-induced dementia afflicts at least 30 percent of the audience. The ensuing psychotic episodes last until the concert ends and range from coughing fits worthy of drug-resistant tuberculosis to uncontrollable urges to complement the percussion by unwrapping hard candies from crackling cellophane paper. (Less common manifestations include a sudden desire to nap and snore, and enthusiastic yet unexplainable shoe chomping.)

Needless to say, under these circumstances, it is not easy to concentrate in your average U.S. symphony-hall-turned-nuthouse, even if you're familiar with the evening's repertoire. If you're unfamiliar with any or all of the pieces being performed, forget it. You might as well make good use of your time while the music plays by grabbing a discarded cellophane wrapper and using it to floss your teeth.

Tuning In

However, a glimmer of hope is appearing, and it's coming from the screen of a personal digital assistant. In an attempt to draw patrons and enhance the concertgoers' experience, several symphony orchestras--including the venerable New York Philharmonic--are testing a PDA-based program PDA-basedcalled the Concert Companion which provides real-time commentary about the piece being performed. Thus, audience members equipped with Concert Companions in theory will be less likely to doze off or engage in disruptive behavior because a steady stream of enlightening snippets will flash on their PDA screens explaining and putting into context the piece being performed.

The product is the brainchild of Roland Valliere, who in June 2002 stepped down after seven years as executive director of the Kansas City Symphony to lead a venture sponsored by the orchestra to explore how technology can be used to draw new people to classical music concerts. "It gives the consumer a choice," Valliere said about the Concert Companion to the The New York Times last month. "You may have a deep appreciation of music and the screen is a distraction. But if you're there as a novice you might find the multimedia approach to be cool."

Rent-a-PDA?

The business model envisioned for the Concert Companion so far is to rent it to audience members during a concert and to have the machine configured so that it can only be used for its intended purpose. Judging by some recent reviews though, the product still must be refined. In The New York Times, Mike Hale reported that at a recent New York Philharmonic concert his Concert Companion froze three times, while his wife "hacked her way to the device's operating system and was happily playing solitaire."

Of course, giving some audience members the chance to play silent PDA games may not be such a bad idea after all, particularly if it allows the sane among the crowd to enjoy the music by preventing the temporarily insane from joining the chorus of snorers or the coughing cacophony. And, of course, let's not even get into the issue of arming concertgoers with PDA styluses. I can definitely see how a timely poke from a stylus might discourage the patron next to you from unwrapping that candy in his hands.

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