“Future Presence” — Inside The Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s Immersive Virtual Reality Installation

Video clips of members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra playing at the Saint Elisabeth-Kirche in Berlin were seen and heard by audience members at Princeton University in virtual reality. (Photos courtesy of Princeton University Concerts)

PRINCETON, N.J. — You could just about believe in classical-music ghosts.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s “Future Presence” virtual-reality program alighted upon Princeton University Concerts on the snowy, frigid Jan. 21 weekend, with the musicians utterly absent but seen and heard in sparkly apparitions performing Ives’ The Unanswered Question. The trumpet soloist materialized in different parts of the virtual room before vanishing without so much as a bow. Flutists appeared and vanished. The immersive event, which required mainly a central transmission device plus headset and earphones for participants, made its U.S. debut in the university’s Up Close series, and indeed redefined typical notions of closeness.

For Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516, the St. Elisabeth-Kirche in Berlin (where the performance was shot) was also evoked — and allowed one to move virtually through the atmospheric room and right into musicians, whose heads turn your way when you walked by.

“They seemed to be looking at me!” I exclaimed while removing the complicated head- and ear-gear.

“And they were!” answered Henrik Oppermann, the mastermind of the orchestra’s “Future Presence” series. The Princeton version — which followed a handful of European appearances, with more U.S. dates to come — was a 45-minute program accommodating a maximum of four people at a time. All slots were sold out ($20 for adults); the limited capacity capped the audience total at 400.

The author was fitted with a transmission device plus headset and earphones.

The similar 2022 “Immersive Scheherazade” at the Curtis Institute of Music down the road in Philadelphia had the Curtis Symphony Orchestra filmed from a gazillion angles by 26 cameras while performing the Rimsky-Korsakov piece and projected onto multiple surfaces in a single room. But all of those images were realistic. The 3-D denizens of “Future Presence” are illusively shimmering, demanding the viewer’s imagination to fill in what might also be there.

One spacious room in Princeton’s Woolworth Center of Musical Studies housed the virtual encounters with Ives and the Mozart quintet (first movement only). Migration to a second room was necessary for the grand finale, Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. There, some 52 virtual players inhabited a still sparkly but more ghostly environment assembled out of 50-plus video clips and with sound edited together from 99 files, having been recorded with 120 microphones. Each instrument was heard in what was called a cone of sound that’s experienced differently according to how close the listener cares to be. “You can put your head inside the double basses,” Oppermann said. “I want you to be brave and bold. A lot of people don’t want to disturb the musicians. But this is about exploring the details and…doing the things that you can’t do in reality.”

More mundane matters, such as sitting on the floor, were complicated. Upon looking down, the goggles kept you from seeing your legs. Walking into walls, though, was not a danger: A virtual fence appeared on your screen if you got too close. Besides, at least two ushers were present to circumvent collisions among participants (one of whom tended to lunge toward the music). Once accustomed to such safety, and in the midst of Mendelssohn’s giddy music, one simply wanted to dance (an impulse I repressed). At one point, when I tried giving one of the cellists a needed shoulder massage, the virtual musician seemed to standoffishly crumble in my hands. Afterwards, Oppermann shrugged. “Well, he is German.” That’s typical of the breezy production crew, who clearly enjoyed the event as much as those taking flights into virtual reality.

The project started in 2019 when Oppermann was working on a 360 video project with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Gustavo Dudamel titled “Symphony: A Virtual Journey Into the Heart of Music.” He saw greater possibilities. As the ensemble’s artistic partner for immersive experiences, Oppermann (having earned a master’s degree in the creative application of technology in music performance at Goldsmiths, University of London), obtained development funds for the current project in Berlin, which is where the Mahler Chamber Orchestra keeps its home office. Repertoire selection was based on the music’s spatial qualities and storytelling potential, which isn’t immediately obvious in Mozart’s chamber music.

The author wandered while listening to and watching the Mahler Chamber Orchestra play music by Ives and Mendelssohn.

“In this quintet, you get the melody, and they hand it off to each other. It’s going on around you — a quality that gets lost [in concerts]. You’re just getting a left-to-right feeling,” said Oppermann. “Now you’re enveloped in the whole performance.”

Mixing virtual reality and physical realty appears to be the next step, industry-wide. Apple Vision Pro, which rolls out in February, offers “altered reality,” allowing physical objects to intermingle with imaginary 3D ones while using a lighter facial apparatus resembling a more streamlined snorkeling goggle. Oppermann conceives something similar in sound: “I want to…introduce a subwoofer into the space. If the sound is just on headphones, it’s only half the experience. But [with subwoofers], the effect is absolutely unbelievable. The air around you is moving as well. It’s hyper-real.”

Real — whether hyper, altered, or virtual — is likely to take on more personal meaning as time goes on. One way it adds up for me is availability: As a child, I swear I once saw a ghost playing with my model airplane — a ghost that was almost identical to the decades-later Mendelssohn-playing shadows in the Princeton experience. Now in the 21st century, the key difference is that the Mendelssohn ghosts can repeat on demand.

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