Debussy on Demand -- More or Less

SAN FRANCISCO (05/24/2000) - It's been a long day. Wouldn't it be nice to unwind to Massenet's "Meditation de Thais"? Only problem: it's not in your CD collection. So you sign onto MP3.com Inc.'s Classical Music Channel, reportedly the first on-demand music subscription system on the Web, and you browse for Massenet's sublime piece.

Alas, "Meditation" ain't there. Nor will you find Offenbach's lilting "Barcarolle" from "The Tales of Hoffman," or anything by popular performers such as Placido Domingo, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, or even - gasp - Beverly Sills. Debussy's haunting "Clair de Lune" is there, but you must know exactly where to look for it (it's part of "Suite Bergamesque").

For $9.99 a month, MP3.com's Classical Music Channel provides classical music neophytes and aficionados with a way to inexpensively sample the major works of many important composers. You can browse the MP3-formatted files by artist, composer, album, or track--some 3,400 in all.

The files can be streamed directly to your computer in "hi fi," "lo fi," or a mixture of both. Or you can download many, but not all, of the tracks. Unlike Web radio sites, such as AltaVista Radio, you can choose which tracks you want to hear and when. And if you've got a portable MP3 player, you can take the tunes with you.

Off Tune? Still, MP3.com's service hits more sour notes than sweet ones. Aside from the classical artists and works missing in action, the site delivers precious little information on the performers, composers, and music available.

Who is the soprano with the gorgeous pipes in that beautiful duet with Pavarotti from "La Boheme," for instance? What year was it recorded? How much did Pavarotti weigh at the time? (Okay, some things we don't need to know).

Finding particular pieces can be a challenge as well, as you can only browse, not search. And the music files often skip, even when downloaded to my PC or streamed as "lo fi" over a DSL connection.

Admittedly, the MP3 format is still controversial among artists and record labels who rightfully fear copyright infringements. And MP3.com's service is the first of its kind, so there were bound to be kinks. For now, though, save your dough and listen to the AltaVista Radio, Lycos Radio, or NetRadio classical channels for free. Who knows? Maybe you'll happen to tune in during "Meditation."

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