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Laurie Niles

Thoughts on the YouTube Symphony event

April 18, 2009 at 10:18 PM

Ah, the YouTube Symphony...

First, I'd like to thank Caeli Smith for bringing us into the moment with her vlogs (BTW "vlog"="video blog"; "blog" = "web log.") Caeli, you did a fine job!

How successful was the YouTube Symphony?

Well, I wasn't there. But after reading blogs, watching vlogs, getting totally bogged....I have a few thoughts to offer.

The large news outlets seemed to offer somewhat differing opinions on the concert: Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times offered a tempered thumbs-up but Anne Midgette of the Washington Post panned the performance, blaming the orchestra's problems on the idea that "What's for an orchestra suddenly to materialize, its members appearing from around the world, or from out of the Internet, to land in a rehearsal room at Juilliard. By now, most people are familiar with YouTube; but it's something else again when the videos suddenly come to life."

She continues later: "Music, it turns out, isn't a language universal enough that people can converse in it easily right off the bat. The orchestra sounded ragged, uneven, of wildly different quality. It sounded, in fact, like a lot of different people talking at one another in many different languages -- which is, of course, what it was."

Was that the problem?

I doubt it. It's hardly unusual, in the world of classical music, to assemble a group of musicians from every corner of the globe, to throw together something in four rehearsals or less. Even among children! What happens on the first day of a Suzuki Institute? A mass play-in. What happens every year at Aspen, for the first concert? Or any summer festival? How about gig orchestras? The "pick-up" orchestra is nothing new, and classical musicans tend to be a well-travelled set.

Is the YouTube symphony new evidence that music is NOT the universal language? Musicians can't converse easily together, in the language of music?


And yet, I give Midgette credit for being one of the few to bring her skepticism to the fore. If what she says doesn't quite ring true, it has the ring of honesty: She didn't like it. Her husband Greg Sandow, wrote about it, too, and about how it was almost impossible not to ride the tidal wave of enthusiasm generated by the positive publicity for this event. "But at the heart of all of this -- at its artistic heart, where the music lives -- something was hollow," Sandow wrote. "The playing wasn't wonderful. Nor was it, for the most part, scrappy or exciting, which could easily have made me love it, even if technically it wasn't so great."

Did anyone else have that feeling? Jeremy?

Technology doesn't change the way we make music. It may bring different people together, but it doesn't change what we need. The beauty of music, the transformative power of a symphony orchestra, comes from its ability to unify us.

We aren't videos, we are people. You can make a video mash-up, but you can't make people play together, live, with just an edit button. Sure, they found talent for this orchestra. But to create music with it, to create the kind of unity that communicates and moves us through music, one needs vision, leadership, and reasonable goals.

It seemed like a lot of music, slotted into an overbooked rehearsal schedule to which no professional musician would agree.

I'm guessing that less would have been more.

And yet, I love that YouTube funded and promoted a huge, ambitious orchestra program. How can I not love that YouTube chose to pour so many resources into an orchestra event, to pull together talented musicians from around the world, to celebrate classical music?

"I'm ready for more. It's like a drug, I need more of this," said violinist Ben Chan into his video camera during the YouTube Symphony Orchestra Concert, at intermission. There he was, in Carnegie Hall. He smiled. "Even though I hurt all over, I need more."

From Bonny Buckley
Posted on April 19, 2009 at 12:04 AM

I can agree the concept is great.  I was looking forward to catching this online to form my own opinion, and I suppose as a foreign legal resident in China I will be able to when I visit the states in a few months.  If only YouTube would call a truce with the Chinese internet powers that be, internet subscribers in China could hear and see this event too.  As of now, it is not exactly on offer worldwide. 

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on April 19, 2009 at 12:37 AM

Am I right in thinking they only had a couple of days to rehearse together?    I wonder if they'd taken everyone off to the middle of nowhere for a week, not done so much publicity til they hit NYC on the last couple of days, whether the end result would have been more satisfactory?  It would be interesting to hear what those people who were present think about this?  

I know publicity was a major part of the whole event, but I am guessing that maybe it got in the way of the music-making?

Great concept though, I hope they do it again some day, by that time I might have worked out how to rig up a video camera and film myself!

From Michael Divino
Posted on April 19, 2009 at 2:08 AM

Laurie, I thought all of your points are well considered, but to me, Midgette's best comments come at the very end :

"With lots of banging of brake drums (part of the percussion battery) nearly drowning out the cheerfully obvious quotes from various masterworks, it seemed just the kind of music -- short, brash, full of action, untroubled by questions of taste -- that the Internet should make."

Well of course I put the last words in bold, but these were the words that stuck out to me most in reading this article.  (The Washington Post is my hometown newspaper, just in case you care.)  I agree when she says the internet can only take you so far in creating an artistically sound performance.  Yes, I can have someone show me how to do spiccato online, but they can't reach back and tell me if it's wrong or right.  Music is so much about being in the moment and interacting with others.  The YTSO was a bold experiment to see how much of our art can be conducted over servers and keyboards, and throwing these people together at the last minute to see how it all worked out.  Maybe the YTSO could only put on a program of "one hit wonders" if you will, because that is how this generation of musicians, especially young musicians like myself are being brought up-- short, brash, give-it-all-to-me-now age of the internet.

I really believe that one of the reasons in setting up the YTSO was just to see if it could be done.  I think everyone would agree that it can be done, but now I think people should step back and look at this first concert.  What was good?  What was bad?  What can stay and what can go?  To be viable and interesting next year, YTSO planners will need to answer these questions to make next year's performance as attention grabbing as this one. 


From E. Smith
Posted on April 19, 2009 at 3:49 AM

The negative remarks from the elite music press are predictable-- like watching someone shoot fish in a barrel.

YouTube's consultants could have easily put together a more professional sounding orchestra (they did, in fact, seed the orchestra with some top-level conservatory students and professionals.) But it would appear that most of the selections were based on demographics and a desire to represent a cross-section of various levels of musical professionals and amateurs. The concertmaster for the Tan Dun piece, handpicked by Tan Dun, is a jazz/gypsy/tango violinist, not classically trained, and if you watch the videos you will see that the orchestra is not actually following him, although he plays with enthusiasm and virtuosity. This decision had to be deliberate.

YouTube deliberately called the 4-day event a "summit' and the orchestra members were called "winners". At first I had a hard time wrapping my tongue around that strange nomenclature. It seemed sort of crass, but then perhaps I'm just another classical music snob?

It's fashionable to deride the internet as "untroubled by questions of taste" (and I don't disagree) but I have a hard time trashing a "summit" that draws so much attention from the outside world. Classical music has refined itself nearly out of existence, and if the genre is to be sustainable in the future we need the largess of wealthy corporations. Let's figure out how to survive in this new world, rather than shrink from it. Artists need to take risk and go after opportunities.

Michael makes excellent points, and writes, "To be viable and interesting next year, YTSO planners will need to answer these questions to make next year's performance as attention grabbing as this one. "

But it is not clear to me, or to anyone I spoke to over the four days that there will be a next year, or any more attention towards classical music from YouTube. There were no promises made, nothing was mentioned and direct questions were delicately avoided.

One thing that was clear to me is that the 100+ musicians loved the experience. How could one not love being plucked out of their ordinary life to spend 3 intense days being coached by the top conductors and musicians in the world? After the concert, Gil Shaham said, "I live in New York, but I feel like I'm on a field trip. I loved this." I'm sure he's had better food, and I know he's played with better orchestras, and does not want for concert fees. So what could he mean? Perhaps the enthusiasm of the "United Nations of Classical Music" (as one violist called it) was an actual pleasure.

As for the lighting and projections- yes, some of it was cheesy (I found the 'Women in Art' that was projected during the solo Bach both distrubing and distracting), but as an experiment it was partially successful. And what is wrong with experimenting? The lighting during Mason Bate's 2008 piece complimented the performance, and the projected live close-ups were a great idea. I wish every symphony would project close-ups during the performance. Steps like this will help open up for the general public a genre that is perceived as elitist and dull.


From David Burgess
Posted on April 19, 2009 at 6:39 PM

Great writing, Laurie, as if I haven't told you  before!

Smith's  comments also provide a good comparative muse on promotional strategies versus "merit".

Posted on April 19, 2009 at 8:24 PM

Just the idea of doing it deserves credit and not one ounce of critique. Some of the members never were in an orchestra and so too, some were not even classically trained. It never amazes me that there are always those who must see the glass as being empty and not even half full.

From Joel Ang
Posted on April 20, 2009 at 10:37 AM

The gathering of orchestra musicians from all over the world to make beautiful music isn't new.

I'm about to play in Berlin with the World Doctor's Orchestra for it's third concert and all proceeds from the concert went to charity organizations benefitting a local organization and an international one. Check out Gathering for a short period of time to rehearse and perform for the love of music can produce this :

The media hype was certainly there and the result of the concerts mixed but anything these days to promote classical music to the younger audience, through the YouTube medium, is a welcome addition.

From kimberlee dray
Posted on April 20, 2009 at 10:07 PM

Just wanted to congratulate all the musicans who participated and shared.  The critics certainly had a tough job.  I don't envy them.  How do you critique something which has no peer?  Not a single other orchestra like it.  No matter the outcome of this experiment, I hope classical musicians continue to give new things a try and to use ingenuity to perpetuate and enlarge the sphere of the music we enjoy.  In creativity is salvation.

From David France
Posted on April 22, 2009 at 2:48 AM

As a proud member of the Youtube Symphony it has been quite intriguing reading all the buzz surrounding this great event.   What I've found most fascinating is that I have yet in the major publications to read anything by the "new audience" that this endeavor has aimed to reach.   All the voices chiming in are old voices of the establishment.   No one has ever even imagined that maybe the youtube symphony doesn't exist for the established classical lovers but for a new audience that desires to have their taste buds enlivened by a genre of music that they have not taken the time to be exposed to.    What I do know is that on the small island of Bermuda the Youtube Symphony has been a huge HIT!   The Premier of the country has decided to come to a classical concert this Friday in which I will be performing.   People everywhere on the island are checking out my Brahms Symphony excerpt.    Many families took time off their jobs and took their children out of school and flew to New York to see the concert while the papers and television shows continue to highlight and praise it's success.    So in a small sense on a small island classical music has a new place in the hearts of the people.   Also, on my own youtube channel "Augustusdavid" since beginning my own journey from audition to finals to winning I have received emails literally everyday about how people are being inspired to take up the violin or some other instrument they have only flirted with.   While in New York I received emails from people in Bermuda who wanted to start violin lessons with me when I returned.   So while the established voices have a real and valid word for us on the success of the YTSO the real voices have yet to be heard and the real success presently lies in the hopes and dreams of the tens of thousands influenced by this endeavor.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 22, 2009 at 3:41 AM

David, what great news! I hope you will keep us posted on what happens.

From E. Smith
Posted on April 22, 2009 at 12:07 PM

David brings up a great point in his post, that the event has drawn world attention to a symphony concert, and to classical music by extenstion. The NYT reviewer, in his otherwise gentle article, complained that the concert lacked substance because the program featured so many brief, single movements. But the variety provided a sample to open up minds for future investigation, and packed in as many different styles as possible in the two hour performanc. This benefited both the musicians, who had a chance to work together under 3 top-notch conductors, playing so many different styles, and the auidence, who had a sample of the range of symphonic music.

And the whole world really is talking about the event. My daughter's YouTube channel has received hundreds of thousands of hit since the days leading up to the summit, and there are countless remarks along the lines of "I don't usually listen to classical music, but this stuff is cool". Everywhere we go,people inside and outside the music word ask about it with curiousity and sometimes a little wistfulness (on the part of musicians who didn't apply.) The only really negative response I've seen was Anne Midgette's in the Washington Post.

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