We tried out the Philharmonia Orchestra’s new virtual reality experience

1 June 2017, 14:33 | Updated: 1 June 2017, 15:01

Virtual Orchestra Philharmonia

By Lizzie Davis

The Philharmonia Orchestra, Classic FM’s Orchestra on Tour, is one of the most digital-savvy music ensembles out there – and now, thanks to their new VR toy, you can experience life in the orchestra. We sent Lizzie from ClassicFM.com to have a go…

The Philharmonia Orchestra has in the past created an exhibition inspired by Holst’s The Planets at the Science Museum, and created an app exploring orchestral music from Haydn to Stravinsky.

And now they’ve become the first UK orchestra to experiment with virtual reality. So if you can’t get to one of their concerts, they can bring the concert to you!

Not many people own Playstation VR headsets (you also need a Playstation 4 and a camera) so I headed to the Philharmonia’s office to use their kit.

Here’s the kit

VR kit for Philharmonia Virtual Orchestra 

When you open up The Virtual Orchestra the first thing you see is a view of the Southbank Centre in London, before you’re whisked up to the balcony of the Royal Festival Hall and then on to the wall overlooking the Thames just in front of the concert hall.

If you can resist grabbing on to your chair to stop you falling into the virtual Thames you will be doing better than me…

Then you see musicians rehearsing backstage, warming up in the corridor before beingtaken into the conductor’s dressing room where you sit a metre in front of Esa-Pekka Salonen as he flicks through the music for tonight’s concert. (Have a snoop around his dressing room while you’re here).

Then you’re waiting backstage with Salonen, the audience applauds and he walks on to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall.


Virtual Orchestra Philharmonia cellos backstage


On stage

This is the heart of The Virtual Orchestra – a performance of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. And you have the best seat in the house – and it’s one that money usually can’t buy.

The cameras that filmed The Virtual Orchestra were positioned directly in front of the conductor’s podium, in front of the first row of string players. So that’s where you’re sitting in virtual reality (a couple of times I ducked as the second violinists got over-enthusiastic with their bows).

Virtual Orchestra Philharmonia on stage

It takes a couple of minutes to relax into the experience and not panic that you too should be playing a violin.

But once you adjust, you can sit back and enjoy the most up-close performance of a professional symphony orchestra you’ll ever experience (unless of course you’re a professional orchestral musician…). It’s tempting to try and potter round to Salonen’s side and try and get a glimpse at his score (though the experience doesn’t actually let you do this).

Virtual Orchestra Philharmonia

Take some time to enjoy this up-close view of the huge Royal Festival Hall organ, spin round and watch the percussionist going to town on the timpanis, watch the cellos in awe as Esa-Pekka Salonen brings out a theme you’ve never noticed before.

The audio is 3D (‘spatial audio’) so not only is the virtual orchestra all around you, you’re also surrounded by the sound of the Philharmonia in full flow. It's fair to say the image is not quite as sharp as you'd want when you're looking towards the back of the orchestra, but this is still an amazing experience. 

My favourite moment came at the very end: the bold final chords of the symphony are awesome to experience from the heart of the orchestra.

And all that for £2.99. Do it in the privacy of your own home and you won’t even have to experience the slight embarrassment of realising the whole marketing team of the orchestra saw you air conducting along…

The Virtual Orchestra is available now from the Playstation Store and costs 99p for a preview or £2.99 for the premium version. Find out more here.