If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about how a symphony orchestra works, Touch Press’s The Orchestra ($13.99 direct) could be the best introduction yet devised. Made by the same folks that brought us the excellent The Elements, The Orchestra showcases the Philharmonia Orchestra performing sections of eight popular symphonic works. It’s not just that, though; it breaks down each piece with multiple video and audio tracks highlighting specific instruments and performers, along with note-by-note sheet music. From the presentation to the top-quality audio cues and video clips, The Orchestra is a brilliant use of the iPad.
Music, Video, and Scores
For this review, I tested The Orchestra on a 16GB, Wi-Fi-only iPad with Retina Display. The app itself works on the iPad and iPad mini, and requires a massive 2GB of storage. It’s worth it, though. For starters, the eight pieces are Hayden’s Symphony No. 6; Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5; Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique; Debussy’s Prelude to a Fawn; Mahler’s Symphony No. 6; Stravinsky’s The Firebird; Lutostawski’s Concerto for Orchestra; and Salonen’s Violin Concerto, spanning from 1761 to 2009. Considering the audio and video involved, that’s a lot of material.
The app’s main interface works in both portrait and landscape mode, and always finds a beautiful way to present as few or as many visual elements as you want while listening to each piece. The eight performances sound great, and are enjoyable to listen to and watch from the three available camera angles (including one focused on the conductor). You can switch on audio or subtitle commentary from the conductor or from musicians during the performance. The app also displays a colorful overview diagram of the orchestra, and lights up individual dots representing the currently playing instruments. It helps you visualize who is playing based on what you’re actually hearing at any given moment.
There’s plenty of written instructional material, too. For example, there’s an overview section that discusses the history and development of the orchestra, details on the conductor, and individual background articles for each of the pieces. They’re pretty informative and fun to read. But ultimately they could use more depth, and in particular could use more examples that place it in context with different major periods of music. A lot happened compositionally in the 250 years these eight pieces cover, and some inkling of that would add to the already well-written text. More useful are the notated scores; you get full notation as well as condensed and curated versions that are easier to follow, and quite educational from a musician’s standpoint.
Instruments and Conclusions
The instruments themselves get some of the spotlight as well, thanks to individual players of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Tap on an instrument, and you can watch the appropriate player in the orchestra describe and demonstrate the instrument’s sound and range, sometimes with insightful commentary on the voice of the instrument and how it sits with the others in a given piece of music. You can also bring up a large picture of each instrument and rotate it 360 degrees, as well as cue up a few video examples of that specific instrument in an orchestral context. Finally, you can “play” the instrument using an on-screen piano keyboard, similar to how GarageBand and other iPad music apps work, in the instrument’s proper range.
Granted, if you already play the clarinet, you’re not going to learn much new about it with this app, and if you already play in an orchestra, you won’t learn much new about any of the other instruments either. Perhaps a more significant gripe is that there’s no way to buy additional pieces of music beyond the eight sections included with the app. There’s nothing wrong with taking eight great works and designing a comprehensive presentation for each, as opposed to a lighter treatment of a larger number of works. But Touch Press may want to consider it for the future; even full versions of the existing pieces with all movements could be worth paying for as in-app purchases. Finally, the app could use more integration with other sources; it’s very much a closed-in system the way a textbook would be, and doesn’t take advantage of Internet-based resources like Wikipedia or online music classes.
The Orchestra is an excellent way to learn more about that most mysterious of musical organizations, in a way that a book or a linear video documentary wouldn’t quite be able to realize. There’s nothing quite like this in the App Store, at least that I’m aware of, although there are plenty of musical instruction apps for specific instruments. Short of a full-semester orchestration course at a university, The Orchestra is a worthy purchase for classical, romantic, and 20th-century-era music fans looking to learn more about the symphony orchestra.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc