Review: By David Polk
The debut concert of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra began Wednesday with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas updating an old joke: The new way to get to Carnegie Hall, he said, is to “upload, upload, upload.”
The concert was the culmination of an online competition by which classical musicians from around the world uploaded video auditions to win a seat in the first-ever YouTube Symphony Orchestra. YouTube, owned by Google, Inc., paid for musicians from over 30 countries to travel to New York City to participate in a two-day musical workshop at Juilliard, various parties and of course the Carnegie Hall Concert.
98.7WFMT participated unofficially in the competition in January by inviting Chicagoans to have their audition professionally recorded in its Levin Performance Studio. While they did not tape their auditions in our studio, two musicians from the Chicago-area were selected for the orchestra: trumpeter Colin Oldberg of Evanston and Tubist Andrew Chester of Chicago
Carnegie Hall was packed, televisions crews from around the world interviewed audience members outside the hall, and the best part was that nobody really knew what to expect from an international orchestra brought together via a completely virtual process.
The program consisted of 15 short pieces — single movements and short works — with none lasting longer than about 10 minutes, making it clear from the first inspection of the concert program that this was going to be a made-for-internet event. After all, anyone familiar with YouTube knows that it has a short video time limit (and attention span). About a dozen cameramen, bloggers and “vloggers” (many of whom looked like they had just escaped from the Apple Store not far away) were scattered throughout the hall, and within the orchestra, making the web aspect ever-present.
This being a web 2.0 event, there were just as many audience members as professionals holding cameras and cell phones above their heads to catch their own version of the action. Incidentally, while there were plenty of grey-heads in the audience, the crowd skewed younger. On stage, most, if not all of the musicians looked under 40, making it a de facto youth orchestra of sorts (though the YouTube Orchestra audition process had no age limits).
Incredibly, despite all the videos and lighting and distractions — and, of course, despite having played together for a total of only 2 days — the quality of music-making was excellent. There were a couple of precarious moments, but overall this orchestra was on-par with the best of the Youth Orchestras.
A big part of the evening was the visual accompaniment to the music, obviously an effort to give more visual appeal when people view the concert videos on YouTube (view them all online here). Musicians were projected on a big screen like a JumboTron at a sporting event; animated maps and titles preceded each piece to tell us what we were about to hear and where it was composed.
The visualizations continued through the music, too, sometimes to great effect, like when a pulsating black and white abstract design, similar to the iTunes Visualizer, encompassed the entire hall during laptop-composer and DJ Mason Bates’s “Wharehouse Medicine from B-Sides.” During Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto, static projections turned the hall into a Viennese Ballroom, complete with chandelier, adding a layer of novelty. And an interesting YouTube collaboration happened when cellist Joshua Roman performed Bach’s Sarabande from Suite No. 1 as an accompaniment to the well-known YouTube video “Women in Art,” whereby famous portraits of women throughout history morph into one-another.
At other times, the visualizations were silly, like when musical notes popped out of pianist Yuja Wang’s head and then started traveling around the hall (at first I thought Tinkerbell had decided to show up). Or when we saw horses galloping through clouds during Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.
In between pieces, we saw video profiles of the musicians, taped in their home towns, projected behind the stage. We heard from a professional gambler from San Francisco who plays classical music to make his life fulfilling; A busy Japanese mother of two who once played professionally; an Italian administrative assistant who would like to be a musician and for whom this is the best thing that’s ever happened. The concert was as much an informercial for the arts and classical music as it was for YouTube, and this can only be a good thing.
In fact, it was the enthusiasm of the musicians that was the best thing that happened to this concert. Their excitement was palpable; some of them didn’t stop smiling through the entire performance, conveying a sort of “OMG I can’t believe this is happening and I’m here” look.
This wasn’t the most serious of classical music making, but what YouTube accomplished was a serious experiment in classical music, something that the classical world is seriously lacking. As Tilson Thomas said, this event was our “trying to figure out the future together.” After all, as a physics-student / bassist member of the orchestra from New York City said in his video profile, “of all the things they could have done [with this project], like a YouTube Basketball team, they chose classical music.” Some of the ideas in this concert may continue elsewhere, and for that we should be thrilled.