Online Voting Begins Today to Pick the YouTube Symphony Orchestra From Video Auditions on the Site

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009

It takes YouTube to bring "American Idol" together with Carnegie Hall. And not just because video clips of both are available on the site in profusion.

Today, online voting begins to select the members of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, which (as The Washington Post announced in December) will perform at Carnegie Hall on April 15 under Michael Tilson Thomas -- an ensemble selected entirely from video auditions posted on YouTube, culled by judges in leading symphony orchestras around the world and chosen in part by votes from YouTube viewers. This means you.

Since the project was announced on Dec. 1, the YouTube Symphony site has gotten more than 10 million hits, and more than 3,000 video submissions from 70-odd countries. Some of those were postings of parts of Tan Dun's "Internet Symphony for YouTube," which will be worked into a video mash-up and screened at the Carnegie Hall concert. Others were audition videos for the actual orchestra; these have been winnowed down to 200 for the general public to vote on.

Video and virtual auditions, and even competitions, are not new to the classical music world. (The Minnesota International Piano-e-Competition, first held in 2002, will have its fifth iteration this summer.) Tilson Thomas has been a pioneer in the field, particularly with his Miami-based New World Symphony, a training orchestra that has been experimenting with master classes, lessons and auditions via Internet2 (a high-bandwidth Internet successor used by many universities) for some years. The New World Symphony is constructing a new home, designed by Frank Gehry, in which the Internet and video play a prominent role (plans include a surface on the building's facade where concerts in progress could be shown for passers-by).

"You select your project, you select your idea, you select your bandwidth, then you're ready to go," Tilson Thomas said yesterday by phone, speaking about generating new ideas with today's technology.

What is new about the YouTube project is speed. In the classical music world, where artists are booked two and three years in advance, assembling an entire project in five months is akin to a leap through hyperspace. Results of the voting will be announced March 2, and participants will then gather in New York from April 12 to 15.

The program has yet to be assembled. Tilson Thomas wants to address some of the incongruity inherent in the term "classical music," which, he points out, can denote "a monk singing in Solesmes as well as a member of Bang on a Can," a hip band-influenced new-music collective. He also wants to highlight some of the incredible diversity already on YouTube, which has become a gold mine for music lovers with videos of almost every imaginable kind of performance. The concert will encompass a range of work: "some things for smaller ensembles, some performance practice, 19th-century music, contemporary music, something with computers."

"Ideally," he says, "we can start to rehearse with them online before they come to New York." He adds that this would be "another way to use this technology."

There is already talk that this project might extend beyond the one-off Carnegie Hall concert; other presenters in other countries have already expressed interest.

But first, it must be seen how well a group of 80 or so people who have never made music together, and who have varying degrees of experience performing in ensembles, can actually play.

Tilson Thomas observed that even experienced orchestra players can have trouble shifting from one ensemble to another. He recalled a Carnegie Hall tribute that he conducted shortly after Leonard Bernstein's death, with members of all the orchestras Bernstein had conducted: musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and other top-flight ensembles.

At the first downbeat, he said, they had trouble coming in together: "There were at least five discernible attacks, because people had such different assumptions about where 'now' is."

Can the universality of music, and of YouTube -- or a strong conductor -- trump 70 different national definitions of "now"? The answer to this question should, at the very least, make for an interestingly different kind of concert.

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