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Quick, which music group has won the most Grammy Awards? No, it's not U2 (who lead the field in popular music with 22), but the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose recordings have won 60.

For breadth and sheer number of albums, no one can match the world's great orchestras, some of which have been recording for nearly a century. The Chicago SO has made more than 900 recordings; a Boston Symphony Orchestra discography published last year needed 350 pages to get through the whole catalogue.

Numbers like that used to be grounds for chest thumping, but now they're reminders of a golden age that is definitely past. Formerly dominant labels such as Decca and EMI Classics now do so few orchestral recordings that many fabled ensembles are setting up their own labels and selling their music online.

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"The days of the seven-, 10- or 15-record deal are long gone," says Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston SO. "We decided to take our destiny into our own hand."

The BSO launched its BSO Classics label earlier this year, with an initial batch of four live recordings. Two are available as CDs; the others can only be purchased as digital downloads from the BSO's website. "I have two kids, and they've never bought a CD in their lives," says Volpe. In any case, the BSO's website records more than 7.6 million unique visitors per year, far more traffic than the orchestra could expect from record stores.

The Philadelphia Orchestra ended a 10-year recording drought in 2007 by launching a partnership with the tiny Finnish label Ondine, with which it has since produced seven live CDs.

As in Boston, the Philadelphians are seeing a bigger future in marketing their own music online. They will sell you music from a selection of recent and archival concerts, one piece at a time. Most works cost $5 or $6 (U.S.), depending on the audio format.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra has three live recordings for sale as digital tracks on its website (for 99 cents each), and as CDs with very limited distribution. So far, says a TSO spokesperson, the downloads outstrip the hard-copy sales by two to one, and over half the downloads are from buyers outside Canada.

The common element in all these situations, aside from the drift away from hard copies, is that the recordings were all made live, and none would have been feasible before 2007. That's when the American Federation of Musicians signed an industry-wide deal that allows North American orchestras to make live recordings of their unionized players without paying them extra fees up front.

The details of the arrangement vary from one orchestra to another, but the outcome is the same. The biggest single cost of recording an orchestra - the players' "step-up" fees - is drastically reduced, or at least deferred until the recording is launched and begins to make money.

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"There's no advance," says Volpe, of his contract with the players in Boston. "We don't pay out until we've covered our costs."

It costs so little to turn the microphones on at Symphony Hall, where many concerts are already recorded for radio, that the BSO now tapes every concert it plays. Only those that both management and orchestra feel would enhance the BSO's discography and reputation are put up for sale as digital albums, for $8 to $13. (The BSO also sells all-access online subscriptions for $30 to $50.)

Nobody has looked further into the future of symphony orchestra recordings than the Berlin Philharmonic. Its Digital Concert Hall, which it launched last year, is a multimedia experiment that combines elements of live performance, concert film, online event and replayable audio recording.

The Berlin Phil put almost all of its 2008-2009 programs on DCH, as high-definition concert films shot in its home auditorium at the Berlin Philharmonie. The 30 concerts were all streamed live on the day they were performed, then stored in the DCH archive.

For a subscription fee - €39 ($60) for one month or €149 for the year - you can watch and listen to virtually anything the Berliners played last season, as well as forthcoming live streams during your subscription period (you can also buy a single ticket for €9.90). It's like having a recording you can listen to whenever and as often as you like, though it feels like you're witnessing a live event, and at the end of your subscription you own nothing.

I've watched a few DCH concerts, and I find them a bit like the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts, only better. The Met broadcasts threw open the doors of a great opera house to anybody who could get to a movie theatre. The DCH does the same thing for one of the world's best orchestras, without having to rely on theatres that are better equipped for blockbuster soundtracks than scores by Gluck or Beethoven. The video production values are very high, and the performances I've heard so far are staggeringly good.

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The DCH also offers music you simply can't hear anywhere else. A June concert conducted by Daniel Barenboim includes a new flute concerto by Elliott Carter, which had previously been performed only in Jerusalem. North American subscribers might be surprised by how much contemporary music is played in one of the European temples of orchestral music.

A DCH concert performance of Haydn's opera Orlando Paladino, recorded with Nicholas Harnoncourt last March, offers a rare chance to hear the ascendant Canadian soprano Jane Archibald, whose opera calendar for next year doesn't include any dates in Canada. The series also introduced me to the Swedish Wagnerian soprano Katarina Dalayman, who warmed up for her April debut at the Met as Brunhilde (in Gotterdammerung) with a luscious and powerful March performance of excerpts from the opera in Berlin.

Like every other orchestra feeling its way into this new world of recording, the Berlin Phil doesn't expect to make any money from its online activities. The lure is all about expanding audiences, enhancing prestige and making a document of performances that will last long after the final chord.

"Without the support of Deutsche Bank [DCH's major sponsor] and of the guest artists who gave all these [recording]rights almost for free, it would not have been possible," says Olaf Maninger, a Berlin Phil cellist and managing director of the DCH. "It's very interesting for them and us to have a look into the future. We all want to give it a try. And we are building an archive in HD, which is fantastic."

The next piece of that archive will be put in place at 1 p.m. on Friday, when the Berlin Phil opens its season at home and online, with Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and a new commissioned piece by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho titled Laterna Magica. That sounds like a pretty good description of my computer, streaming music and images from DCH.


By the numbers


The number of Grammy Awards the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has won - almost triple that of U2


The number of pages in the

Boston Symphony Orchestra's discography, published last year.


The number of unique visitors to the BSO's website, where they are now releasing their own

albums for download


The number of live concerts streamed online, then archived, by the Berlin Philharmonic in the 2008 - 2009 season

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