Music Review: Musicians in YouTube Symphony Orchestra Offer Unsteady Performance

Michael Tilson Thomas (and, briefly, Edwin Outwater) leads the YouTube Symphony from the practice room to Carnegie Hall in works by Mason Bates, Brahms, Lou Harrison, Prokofiev and Mozart. Video by Anne Midgette/The Washington Post
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009

NEW YORK, April 15 -- The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is rehearsing an orchestra. He tells the oboes to play out. He asks the strings to emphasize the third and fourth beats of each measure, which are getting muddy. He makes a joke. Everybody laughs, even though not everyone speaks English. This is not uncommon in an orchestra. Music, after all, is a universal language -- particularly classical music, since you can play it without needing words.

What's uncommon, though, is 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.

That's what happened when the 96 members of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra -- culled from about 3,000 videos posted to the Web site -- came to New York this week from Cuba, Latvia, Romania, China and 27 other countries, for three intense days of rehearsal and, Wednesday night, an ambitious playlist of a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Not that they weren't prepared, virtually, for the physical meeting. Scores were sent out well in advance, with markings. Tutorials were posted on YouTube for the various parts. And the orchestra members were asked to make videos introducing themselves to their colleagues; about half did.

At dinner on the first night, says the American flutist Nina Perlove: "I walked into the room and almost every face in the room was a face I recognized. Because I'd seen all the videos . . . not only did I recognize the people but I was like, 'Oh, you're from this place . . . and you showed me your house.' "

The idea of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra was hailed with a certain amount of skepticism even by the people who auditioned. Many players said they auditioned on a whim, because, like the cellist George Durham from Reno, Nev., they were already in the habit of posting videos to YouTube, or because, like the Austrian violinist Roman Krainz, a friend saw the link on YouTube and egged him on. (She didn't get picked; he did.) Some didn't quite believe it was real until they found themselves on a plane to New York, where the eight-hour rehearsals served as a reminder that -- glamorous as the idea is, and exhilarating as the experience may be -- making music still entails a lot of hard work.

The $64,000 Question is: What is the point? Actually, the question probably cost a lot more than that, although YouTube wouldn't divulge how much it cost to fly more than 100 people to New York; put them up for four to five days; and to hire top-flight soloists such as Gil Shaham and Yuja Wang, a bevy of professional mentors to coach and play with the participants, and publicists to cope with the huge influx of media attention, since every country wanted coverage of its own performers.

One aspect, of course, is it was publicity for YouTube, which was demonstrating the real-world potential of its platform. "I don't see any reason why this can't spin out," said Ed Sanders, the YouTube marketing manager who oversaw the project. "It doesn't have to be us that does it. The platform's there. If people want to go and discover talent, this is a great way to do it, and I think this project has shown it."

Another reason was the idea of building community and instilling some kind of excitement about classical music in a world in which -- as so much of the media attention made clear -- it is very much viewed as exotic and marginalized.

Still, what everyone was really hoping for was a wonderful musical experience to complete the fairy-tale idea that strangers at all levels of ability, from professionals to music students to hobbyists, could come together and join in top-flight musicmaking. Unfortunately, as Wednesday's concert demonstrated, that's the stuff of video, not reality. 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.

Music, in short, is more honest a language than its presenters may have wanted: It is, at bottom, better at revealing truth than fantasy.

The presentation was certainly fantasy-like: Carnegie Hall was filled with elaborate video projections, often cheesy (musical notes flowing up the wall from a soloist's body) and sometimes engaging (cameras focusing in on a musician during a solo). One's instinct was to protest that the organizers didn't trust the music to speak for itself. But indeed, it needed all the help it could get.

Tilson Thomas's program ranged all over the musical map, from Gabrieli to John Cage, but the reality of too little time to prepare too much music -- and three intense days of full-time concentration demanded of people who aren't all used to it -- was reflected in a performance that he was powerless to animate. Carnegie heard straggling Brahms (the fourth symphony Allegro), windy Dvorak (from the D Minor serenade) and a downright anemic "Ride of the Valkyries."

The second half was better than the first, in part because there were some wonderful soloists, like the pianist Wang (whose virtuosity in the scherzo from Prokofiev's second concerto was especially breathtaking in this context).

A happy highlight was the piece written specifically for the occasion, Tan Dun's "Internet Symphony No. 1, 'Eroica.' " It's a bombastic pastiche of a thing, but its bombast is endearing. The players all knew it, because it was required as one of their audition videos (a mash-up of all the contributions has been posted on YouTube's Symphony channel). And Tan Dun, as conductor, managed to invest its cliches -- and his players -- with a sense of genuine delight.

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.

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