Friday 25 September 2020

Cutting-edge technology enables the Guildhall School's Gold Medal competition to go ahead in a socially distanced manner

Guildhall Gold Medal 2020 - Rehearsal Video on Vimeo.

As someone who spent 30 years working in computers and IT, I have a healthy distrust of technology, but sometimes it has its uses. Having a socially distanced orchestra takes space, a lot of space. At the BBC Proms this year, the Royal Albert Hall managed chamber orchestra size with a huge addition to the platform, and for its 100th anniversary concert the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra resorted to a huge warehouse. Lacking these resources of space, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama has had recourse to cutting edge technology.

A network of ultra-fast low latency cables has been installed across the Guilhall School's Silk Street and Milton Court buildings (they are over the road from each other) which connect multiple rehearsal and performance spaces – both within and between the two buildings. The cables minimise the delay inherent in transmitting signals from one space to another, so they will allow an entire orchestra to see the conductor and hear each other in real time whilst sitting in safely distanced setups and playing in three separate rooms. 

This technology has enabled the Guildhall School to re-schedule the final of its annual Gold Medal (originally due to happen in May 2020). The Gold Medal is the Guildhall School's most prestigious music prize, each year it alternates between singers and instrumentalists. Previous winners have included Jacqueline du Pré (1960), Tasmin Little (1986) and Sir Bryn Terfel (1989), and this year it is the chance of the instrumentalists.

This year's finalists perform a concerto of their choice with Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes. Pianist Soohong Park performs Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, cellist Ben Tarlton performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor and pianist Ke Ma performs Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor.

All three are big orchestral works, so the strings will be in the Music Hall in Silk Street, woodwind in Room 148 and Brass & Percussion in Milton Court Concert Hall. The conductor, Richard Farnes, will be on his own in a separate room where he will conduct to a camera and speak into a microphone to address the orchestra. All players will be able to see the conductor on screen and hear the other sections of the orchestra, and the conductor will be able to see and hear each section of the orchestra simultaneously. The three Gold Medal soloists will play in the same room as the Strings and be in direct communication with the conductor via a headset. 

It sounds quite a challenge, particularly for the finalists in a competition but then training at college is meant to have an element of preparation for the real world, and I fear that Guildhall School's technological solution is very much going to be part of our real world from now on.

Further information from the Guildhall School website, and the final will be streamed live on-line.

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