YouTube (sigh) Symphony

I wanted to like the YouTube Symphony, whose concert disappointed me. I really did want to like them. Their backstory is irresistible, obviously. Musicians from many countries audition by video, professionals pick finalists, the world votes to decide the winners, everybody (some barely able to believe that it’s real) come to Carnegie Hall, the Mecca of classical music, to play a concert. 

And this is, in many ways, good for classical music. Press from many countries thronged the press conferences, interviewed musicians, came to rehearsals and the concerts. Major American TV shows featured the happenings. People who’d never go to classical concerts came to Carnegie Hall. 

As Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director, said at a press conference (I wasn’t there, but I was told about it on good authority), classical music needs more exposure. It needs to reconnect with the culture at large. (OK, those are words I often use, but I gather that Gillinson said much the same thing.) And this event helps classical music do that. I think it’s another step — and a big one — in something I talked about here a while ago (here and here), a steady change in the way the world looks at classical music, so it now seems far more accessible and interesting than it did 10 years ago. 

But to understand why I wasn’t just disappointed, but actually dismayed, after the concert, you have to understand how the event was produced. There was video throughout, introducing the musicians. These were videos the players had made themselves, in the best YouTube tradition, and they were irresistible. Nobody with a heart could help loving these people, being thrilled for them, and wishing them all the success in the world. 

But the videos also kept telling us, implicitly and explicitly, that the concert was a wonderful concert. And then there was Michael Tilson Thomas, who conducted most of it, just about jumping out of his skin with delight, making a huge commotion about everything (as he so often does), telling us over and over again how wonderful everything was. 

And then there were classical music celebrities. Yo Yo Ma and Lang Lang on video. Gil Shaham live on stage, playing a movement from a Mozart concerto. And a Britten folksong arrangement, with the orchestra’s violins. Rising cello star Joshua Roman playing unaccompanied Bach. (I incorrectly identified him as a member of the orchestra, in my post on the orchestra’s club night.) Young pianist Yuja Wang, an eye-popping virtuoso. 

And then there were three young kids, pianists, picked by Lang Lang as rising stars, playing a Rachmaninoff piece for six hands. They really didn’t know how the music went, and couldn’t quite get the rhythms together, but they were prodigious little finger machines, were completely adorable, and knew exactly how to end with a flourish, musical and visual, to make the audience explode. 

Nor should I forget the visuals. Projections, expertly produced. Floating clouds for Debussy, though that was the least of it. Musical notes soaring off in an ecstatic spiral, almost literally from Yuja Wang’s head, as she played. Colors, lights, glitz. I’ve never seen a classical concert produced like this. It must have cost a fortune. 

And it all conspired to say, “This is wonderful! This is special! This is heaven!” And while it was wonderful to see classical music given the kind of multimedia treatment pop concerts get — though it outdid most pop shows I’ve been at — and wonderful to ask myself what kind of mileage the Chicago Symphony, let’s say, might get if they produced their concerts this way, it also was more than a little bit much. I was transported back to corporate press conferences I attended years ago, from companies like Sony, where nothing’s left to chance, everything’s overproduced, and the production takes over every cubic inch of mental space, so there isn’t any room for independent thought. The concert, you just about had to think was wonderful. How could it not be? We were told every moment that it was!

Afterwards, outside Carnegie Hall, out on 57th Street, TV crews from Britain, Germany, and Japan (along with maybe other countries that I didn’t spot) were stopping people — including, I think, some celebrities (but I’m bad at recognizing celebrities) — to ask what they thought. Everyone I saw them interview was starry-eyed. Everybody thought it all had been wonderful.

But at the heart of all of this — at its artistic heart, where the music lives — something was hollow. 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. You can read two reviews, linked on ArtsJournal, one from the New York Times (favorable), another from my wife, in the Washington Post (not favorable). Not surprisingly, I agree with my wife, not because we conspire to give the world the same opinion on everything, but because, after 10 years together, I know we hear the same things, though we sometimes draw different conclusions from what we hear. 

So here’s what I heard. (I’d first thought, when I contemplated writing this, that I’d be kind, and not go into detail, because I loved the musicians so much. But given the hype, I”d rather be honest.) Right at the start, when the orchestra began with the third movement of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, there were details unattended to. Small notes were obscured. And the strings were underpowered, compared to the rest of the orchestra. 

Then came what, in retrospect, seems like a programming  mistake, four pieces designed to show off each orchestral section. In an excerpt from Lou Harrison’s Canticle No. 3 (and how lovely to hear Harrison on a concert like this), the percussion couldn’t seem to find a rhythm, to agree on exactly where the beats were. In an excerpt from the Dvorak D minor wind serenade, the winds sounded weak and dry. In an antiphonal Gabrielli piece, played from two sides of the balcony (another terrific idea), the brass didn’t have much heft, and was unfocused rhythmically (even taking each section separately, and cutting them slack on the more complex problem of getting the two groups together). 

And really, I think I’ll stop now, because I’m feeling more than a little cruel right now, even though (to be perfectly honest), I’ve pulled a few punches in what I’ve just said, no matter how critical I might have seemed. Ill just add that the piece that ended the first half, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, unfortunately couldn’t have been better chosen to highlight some of the orchestra’s problems, in this case with the brass, which just didn’t have either the weight or the rhythmic flair to project the famous tune. 

Things were better in the second half, in part because of the repertoire. A new piece by Mason Bates (featuring himself as DJ, playing his laptop) was terrific music. John Cage’s Renga, in which the orchestra improvised, got exactly the right treatment, full of spirit and an honest sense of musical exploration. 

And maybe the highlight of the concert was a new Tan Dun piece, Internet Symphony No. 1, “Eroica,” which was triumphantly vulgar (I loved every moment of it, including the flamboyant quotes from the Eroica Symphony), and also played with an explosive exuberance I didn’t hear in the other pieces. This was exactly what I would have loved to hear throughout the evening, and which would have made me love the concert, no matter what detailed fau

lts I heard. Maybe the piece sounded so good because the musicians had rehearsed their parts individually with Tan, online. Or maybe it’s an easy piece to play. Or maybe — how’s this for heresy? — Tan is a better conductor than MTT (at least in his own work), and/or was more fun to work with. 

But some people didn’t even hear the second half. During intermission, I talked to some orchestra professionals I know, and none of them were happy. Two even left, one out of boredom, the other with a sense (I think it’s right to put it this way) of faint disgust. 

And here’s where I felt, if not disgusted, then dismayed. The event came off, I’m sure unintentionally, as an orgy of self-congratulation. To be fair, the playing did get better, and (though the final programmed piece, the finale of the Tchaikovsky Fourth, was oddly square) the encore, the big march from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, had a lot of energy, even if it didn’t match the Tan Dun explosion. And maybe, maybe…maybe if the group had played together longer, if they’d had a couple of tryout concerts in Dubai and Prague, if they’d had more rehearsal, or if the New York rehearsals hadn’t (of necessity, I’m sure) been so unremitting…maybe then the concert might have been more powerful.

But as things were, the actual playing got a little lost in the sea of self-congratulation. (None of which, I want to stress as strongly as I can, was the musicians’ fault. Nor did they participate in it, though the use that was made of their videos helped create the problem.) And there was something very sad in this. To overpraise things, to make them seem better than they are — and to do this so relentlessly — degrades standards, just a little. 

And I wonder whether many people involved in the planning, though they set out with the best will in the world, and were genuinely excited, maybe should reconsider what they did, and ask if they didn’t contribute to something that was as bad, in certain ways, as it was good. It’s fine to get starry-eyed over classical music. But it’s sad to think that this concert didn’t measure up, not to top professional standards (which wouldn’t be fair to hold this group to), but to the standards of the good youth orchestras I’ve heard. 

Start, of course, with the Simon Bolivar group from Venezuela, who are deservedly world-famous. But add the orchestras I’ve heard at the University of Maryland and at Florida State, and at the  National Orchestral Institute in Maryland…these set a standard that the YouTube Symphony can’t yet meet. And while it’s hardly fair to expect the audience at Carnegie Hall to have heard these groups, and to make comparisons, it’s also not quite right to gush endlessly about how wonderful everything is, without a word or two of honest caution. 

Would it have hurt for MTT, let’s say, to tell us that what we’re hearing was a work in progress? That only so much could be done in the rehearsal time available? That everyone involved had done wonderful work, and made great progress — as I’m sure they did — but that there still was ground to cover? And that everyone involved knew that, and didn’t want anyone to think that, as yet, they’d achieved any kind of musical triumph?

That would have been refreshing. And, I think, would have reinforced the honor of everyone involved. 

I’ll finish with one more cautionary thought. A lot of people look down on American Idol. It’s cheap, people say. It’s trashy. The winners are shallow, empty, full of glitz. 

But one thing American Idol does expose is chops. Who has them, and who doesn’t. Nobody can pretend that some attractive contestant can sing well, if he or she doesn’t, and others on the show can plainly sing much better. 

Nor is this complicated. Anyone can hear it, if the comparisons are right there on TV. And if orchestras somehow could compete like that, everyone would have heard the problems at Carnegie Hall last night. It’s not rocket science. You don’t need musical training. Put the Ride of the Valkyries, as the YouTube players played it, next to other performances by other orchestras (as in fact you’ll be able to do, right on YouTube, once they post the videos of last night’s event), and you’ll see exactly why I wasn’t happy. 

I know the audience at Carnegie Hall couldn’t do that. And if they were enthusiastic, I also know that their enthusiasm was entirely genuine. But the people in charge of the event, most of them, know perfectly well, or ought to know, that the playing wasn’t all that good, and somewhere in the mix of all their duties, all their work to present and publicize the concert, they should have taken time for a word of caution, for the sake of simple honesty, and to preserve the high artistic standards that supposedly make classical music better than what we see every night on TV.

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  1. says

    Spurred by Anastasia’s blog post where she compared the project to toddler development (“creative activities are about the process, not the result.”), I compared the concert to the Olympics on Twitter: participating is more important than winning.

    The concert simply couldn’t be good. It takes time to build up an orchestra with complementary voices. Just like a thrown together all-star sports team would probably lose against a well-oiled local team.

    I agree that the self-hyping was probably not a good idea. And too much production and too many gimmicks is never good; just look at Andre Rieu.

    I think the main point harks back to Anastasia’s blog post: it should be seen as part of the process in action, and not a final statement. The concert was never the real final product.

    Yes. And the concert, sigh, couldn’t have been sold more strongly as a gleaming, perfect product, if it had been a new drink from Coca-Cola. This may have been an unintended byproduct of everyone’s enthusiasm, but it created exactly the wrong impression.

  2. says

    et me preface my comment by saying I was not at this concert, but I have been following this project online since it was first announced.

    I have to wonder, if music professionals left at intermission: What exactly were they expecting? Were they really surprised that the musical quality was less than stellar?

    Those who expected brilliant musicianship from what is essentially a pick up orchestra who have had insufficient rehearsal in a wildly diverse concert were not only expecting too much, but expecting results that were likely not the goal.

    While the entire youtube symphony phenomenon can be couched in rhetoric about its musical value (and I’m not suggesting there is none), the youtube symphony is really about YOUTUBE! This is marketing genius – not genius artistic programming. The amount of exposure youtube has gotten from this project is incredible. I’d love to know what their ROI will ultimately be on this “investment” in classical music.

    I’m not being a cynic, rather I’m pointing out that I don’t believe the executives behind this initiative ever really expected a brilliant, inspired musical experience. They expected a brilliant, inspired – and highly visible – EVENT that helps to reinforce and strengthen the youtube brand. In the process, some non profit arts organizations got a valuable boost in exposure as well.

    What I think is most interesting is the doors this could open for arts organizations big and small. Using the power of social media like youtube is at the infancy stage for most arts organizations. I’d like to think that the youtube symphony will, at the very least, get arts administrators to push the boundaries of engaging new constituents through these channels. If it does this, then ultimately it will have served a much greater purpose than simply the production of an artistic concert or event.

    Good points, Edelson. But remember that YouTube wasn’t the only creator of the event. Carnegie Hall was involved, and so was 21C, a bigtime classical music publicity and strategic marketing firm. Both of these entities might have stopped to think, at some point, that the concert almost certainly wouldn’t be stellar, on purely musical terms, and that some allowance should have been made for that, in the midst of all the glitz.

    As for the people who left, well, as you say, you weren’t there. If you had been, you might have been more sympathetic to people who wanted to leave. What were they expecting? Well, neither of them was in any way involved with the event, so they were there for two reasons. Curiosity, of course. Interest. Hope that this might lead somewhere good.

    And then, as always, they’d hope for some musical pleasure. And that’s what they weren’t getting. So they didn’t flounce out in any great show of annoyance. They just felt — and in fact one of them said this to me in so many words — that there wasn’t any great musical pleasure in hearing the concert, and they’d seen the phenomenon, which included the new audience, and of course the packaging. So why should they stay? They go to concerts constantly.

    One, it’s true, was a little disgusted, because the packaging so dwarfed the musical content. But again, he didn’t storm out. He just didn’t think the second half would be worth his time. Both these people were wrong about that, by the way. The second half was a lot better, and had the Tan Dun and Mason Bates and Cage pieces, which brought a much more contemporary air to the whole thing. I was glad I stayed, though a sympathetic friend in the biz (not one of the two I’ve mentioned) was encouraging me to leave, if I felt like it.

  3. says

    But it’s sad to think that this concert didn’t measure up, not to top professional standards (which wouldn’t be fair to hold this group to), but to the standards of the good youth orchestras I’ve heard.

    Have you ever heard a newly assembled youth orchestra after just two rehearsals?

    No, and I see your point.

    But…why did they give a concert with so much hype after only two rehearsals? And why did they keep saying that the concert was wonderful? What you’ve said here, DJA, only reinforces what I said in my post, that the performance would more honestly have been presented as a work in progress.

  4. says

    Marc, thanks for referring to my post. (I want to stress that I wasn’t trying in the slightest to demean the YTSO players by comparing them to toddlers, but instead to talk about certain bigger creative processes, and what we should expect of them.)

    Also, re video: as I said in the post on my own site, I thought the video projection component added precious little to the overall experience. (I mean the ones to accompany the music, like the clouds for Nuages and Yuja’s note flurry, *not* the interview/b-roll segments).

    Yes, it was cool to see images projected on the Carnegie ceiling, but I just wish that the capacity had been more smartly utilized. (Examples of such: Ojos de Brujo’s stage shows; or, to look towards the more classical, the fabulous live collaboration that Brooklyn Rider did w/visual artist Kevork Mourad @ Brooklyn Lyceum a year or so ago–I wish there were video of that available anywhere. (?)

    Greg, I agree with you in many ways about the hype, but again I wonder how much this whole project was indeed *managed* (especially with so many participating orgs/cooks in the kitchen), all with a vested interest in saying how special the mere fact of last night was.

    Speaking of pulling punches: another factor in the ambience you describe is that it might be unlikely that many of the YTSO musicians will have other opps to play a (Carnegie-presented) performance at Carnegie ever again. It’s not as if anyone from YouTube/Google leapt up to the stage to announce that they intend to continue supporting this venture.

    Compound all those factors with the understandable chaos of such a difficult to manage program (so many moving parts, which couldn’t have helped anyone articulate anything), and I think that might explain–though not justify–the air of self-congratulation you describe.

    As I said in my own post, I came away thinking myself that this was a process-oriented event–and, as far as I’m concerned, should have been described/publicized that way. Maybe the fear was that saying “hey, this is what it is, and let’s celebrate what it *is*–which is very exciting in and of itself” just wasn’t glamorous or sexy enough to attract mainstream news crews? Or is it another case of the classical music industry being terribly afraid of not having total control over the public’s perception/digestion of what it offers, and feels compelled to tell us what to make of it?

    Good points, all through. Thanks.

    Classical music, in its big-time forms, certainly is afraid of not having control. And of creating even a remotely negative impression. Hence, for instance, people who object to negative reviews, saying that we need to support classical music, not attack it.

    But then the mainstream corporate world is even worse. I think what classical music has, as its special contribution to controlling PR, is a dual sense of entitlement and self-congratulation. The whole enterprise is defined from the start as important and wonderful. GM may want to create a similar impression for its cars (good luck), but it knows that if the cars don’t sell, something went wrong. Classical music, I think, defines itself as wonderful no matter how anyone reacts. So of course that made the whole event special almost by definition.

    I think everyone involved got caught up in the excitement. I had at least one private conversation with someone on the inside from which I got a clear picture of that. And it’s hard to blame anyone, though as professionals they should have taken a few deep breaths. I remember saying several times, in the past months, that obviously the YouTube audition procedure wasn’t the best way to put an orchestra together. But I didn’t strategize any further, even to imagine in advance what the concert might sound like. So I confess that I was taken by surprise when it was so poor.

    Still. All these people on the planning and PR end have to take responsibility for what, in retrospect, were apparently mistakes.

  5. says

    @Anastasia: I didn’t take your comments about toddlers as referring to the musicians. But LOL!

    And re: process versus finished product. I agree. I left a comment on Beth’s Blog:

    “Some food for thought: maybe that’s also a key point of social media; it might not necessarily be about the end result (and how do you measure success anyway?), it’s about the process and the participation.”

    Another analogy. A Wikipedia page always starts with an interest, then a stub, then a collaboration, but the product is never really finished. Again, it’s all about the process, the participation and looking to learn from those two elements.

    Rough cuts are okay in social media. I think the “industry” would do well to let go of some of that control and be comfortable with rough cuts.

  6. Maura says

    I think Lawrence has a good point about the marketing genius on behalf of the YouTube executives. Look how much buzz this project has generated – classical music blogs, writers, sites, who normally only refer to YouTube for recordings, are engaging in a way that no one anticipated. The various channels YouTube uses to track mentions of its name are probably explodin.

  7. says

    Many fear that this is a one-time-only stunt by YouTube. However, nobody could argue that the concept wasn’t a breakthrough. I, however, think a continual project needs to be created to keep the momentum. Classical music shouldn’t be exclusive and an event like this could play a big role in promoting more participation–which eventually leads to the point I’m trying to make…

    These musicians are ordinary people. One guy is a poker player, a lot are office workers and some are plainly nobody. Thus it’s no surprise that the audience would be overwhelmed in the virtual and audible congratulatory messages. This is just to stress the importance of ordinary people who have talents. And those who bought tickets must somewhat knew what to expect.

    By the way, check out this video to see what different media outlets think of the project and the show:

    Yes, ordinary people. And then maybe not, since so many of them were tremendously appealing people who made compelling videos about themselves. And a professional poker player, who does music on the side? Nothing against him, but I wouldn’t call that ordinary, and obviously the guy is red meat for the media.

    Maybe I could mention here that some of my Juilliard students dismissed the whole thing as a publicity stunt. They were convinced that the musicians had been picked in at least some cases partly for their publicity value. And sure, it’s easy then to dismiss this as some kind of sour grapes, from people who didn’t audition for the thing, and who aren’t getting that much publicity. But these people have very solid careers, many of them. So they don’t think they need YouTube on their side, especially for something that might vanish as quickly as it arose. And the quality of the concert can only reinforce their suspicions.

  8. Brian W. says

    Greg, I see your points about the whole thing being a bit overproduced. But I think one has to put themselves in the mindset of the audience this event is designed to attract. Novices and young people in their teens, 20s and 30s are accustomed to much, much faster-paced and more visually rich entertainment options. Because classical music is so far in the opposite direction 99% of the time, this was an effort to try and meet newcomers half way. I’d bet if you surveyed the average 20-something there they’d have thought the visuals were cool and MTT inspiring.

    Also, I wonder it’s mostly beside the point to bring up criticisms of the playing. It sounded a little rough and scrappy at times to me (esp. the brass) but with 2 days of rehearsals I wouldn’t have expected the Berlin Phil.

    I for one enjoyed the behind-the-scenes videos and even some of the projections. Whatever the excesses, I’d hope it would inspire some of the stodgy elements in mainstream orchestras to really think seriously about their presentation methods and how to reach a new audience.

    Hi, Brian. I’m glad to have your perspective. And you know I’m not hostile to bringing some production into classical music, to help reach a new audience.

    But at the same time, I think we have a responsibility to be honest about artistic things. Did you or I like it when David Helfgott got such amazing publicity, when he really couldn’t play the concerto that made him famous? Or when Andrea Bocelli got hyped as an opera singer, which he’s not qualified to be? Anne had an interesting time reviewing a special choral performance at the Washington Opera, where Bocelli sang the tenor solo, and she says, sang it terribly. The event was conducted by Placido Domingo, who of course runs the company, and was designed as a fundraiser. Hence Bocelli.

    So then come arguments. Some people, Bocelli fans, can’t hear that he’s bad. And Domingo’s presence in the pit is an endorsement, isn’t it? So Anne can’t possibly know what she’s talking about.

    Domingo, of course, knows perfectly well that Bocelli can’t sing the music. (I have no backstage knowledge of this. But of course he knows Bocelli can’t sing it, because any professional would, and Domingo, needless to say, is a consummate professional where singing is concerned.) So there’s a kind of hypocrisy involved in the event. And a willingness to mislead a new audience, as well as attract them.

    I think something of the same sort went on here. As well as a related phenomenon. People are taught, implicitly, not to trust their instincts. Many people in the audience may have heard that the performances weren’t wildly exciting (to say the least), but then figured they had to be wrong, because — well, wasn’t that the great Yo Yo Ma up on the video screen, acting as if everything was wonderful? Didn’t Michael Tison Thomas say everything was wonderful?

    This is a problem, needless to say, throughout our society. Shouldn’t we resist it, when it shows up in our own backyard?

  9. says

    As a digital music addict, I think that this concert was a great idea. Classical Music was taken into the modern idiom. We need to grow the younger audience.

    But, I have a suggestion, also combining Classical Music and the digital idiom: WBGO, Jazz in Newark, NJ, has begun videocasts of concerts at the Village Vanguard. How about a videocast of this orchestra, not just on Yo’Tube (I cannot seem to leave that joke alone)but a full out videocast from some great venue like Carnegie Hall, NY, Symphony Hall, Boston, or Disney in L.A.?

    Josh Jackson and Dave Tallacksen include a running comment utility in the WBGO product. So the viewers could applaud, complain, moan, exalt, whatever.

    This would be great. Not TV, computercentric.

  10. Doug says

    You know, there is an old saying among orchestra musicians that a colleague has decided to “phone in” their part.

    Well these days, you can email your part in!


  11. Anna says

    I’d like to know how much of the limited rehearsal time went to choreographing all the video projections. Sigh. These kinds of things are rarely about the music.

    Though to be fair, while our music critic ears probably catch all the faults in a under-rehearsed orchestra, the general listener probably had an enjoyable experience at the concert. And from what I can hear on YouTube (the concert is posted), they didn’t sound half bad all things considered. I say take it for what it’s worth; a fun experiment that succeeded in closing the gap a little between classical music and modern culture.

    Which completely makes sense, Anna.

    From what I’ve heard, they did rehearse the music very seriously. I think the tech rehearsals for the visuals can be done without the orchestra present. I’ve been involved in concerts with multimedia, and the orchestra playing them wasn’t anywhere in sight when we rehearsed the visuals.

    I’ll repeat, though, what I said in response to another comment. Yes, people in the audience, who don’t know classical music well, will often have a good time at concerts you and I wouldn’t love. But there are also people whose instinct tells them something is wrong, that the music isn’t really exciting them, that they’re just not completely enjoying themselves. But then these people — even without multimedia hype all around them — will often think it’s their own fault they feel this way, that they just don’t understand. George Bernard Shaw, way back in the 1890s, wrote about exactly this phenomenon in one of his music reviews.
    And I can’t count how many times I’ve encountered it, either just when I’m talking to friends and family, or when I’ve been involved more formally, leading discussions with members of an orchestra audience. Often a moment of liberation occurs. I might say I didn’t love a concert so much (though I’m never the first to say that when I lead official discussions), and the other person suddenly lights up, and starts to say all the things they’d noticed. They just needed permission. In the formal discussions, the same thing can happen when a single audience member raises an objection. Suddenly other people turn out to have felt the same thing, or had other probems with what they heard.

    Given this, it’s especially sad, for me, to see a concert remorselessly hyped while it’s going on, almost guaranteeing that the kind of people I’m talking about will suppress what they think.

    And then there are people who may not have experience with classical music, but know instantly when something isn’t good. These people won’t be fooled by the hype for a moment. But the hype will turn them off, and they’ll end up feeling that classical music can be even more phony and commercial than the worst of pop.

  12. Pam says

    From the beginning, this whole thing was hype, pure and simple. Using YouTube for professional purposes isn’t a new concept and I’m surprised the press jumped at this story. Sorry to say, I think you all were fooled by a good, old-fashioned “publicity stunt.” Has it really been such a slow news year?

  13. Carol says

    Greg —

    I feel your comments about this concert validate the need for responsible critics, and the need for media ownership that will hire responsible and knowledgable critics and allow them to speak their mind freely. Particularly regarding a concert that has been so massively hyped as ground-breaking.

    It has been fascinating to read all of the comments to your blog, and also to read the various articles and links provided that pertained to the You Tube orchestra concert. Alas, the majority of Americans who care about orchestras and/or the arts in general will not have the benefit of all this perspective, unless they happen to read some of the blogs.

    Have you been able to learn 1) exactly how much this entire project cost, and 2) who paid for it all?

    Hi, Carol. I haven’t made any inquiries about the cost, and haven’t tried to develop any off the record sources. My wife, Anne Midgette, asked on the record, and wrote in her Washington Post review: “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…”

    In other words, she asked, and they wouldn’t tell her.

  14. says

    There seems to be a lack of full disclosure on the part of our esteemed Mr. Sandow, who happens to be married to a seemingly unhappy music critic, Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, also known for her acerbic tone.

    It almost appears as if Ms. Midgette spoon-fed her husband the snarky bits she wasn’t able to include in her own Washington Post piece, which Mr. Sandow has eagerly re-posted in this show of spousal support. This can be the only explanation as to why a tech columnist would expend so much effort on a negative critique of the concert.

    Let’s hope that Mr. Sandow’s show of support helps to boost his wife’s career!

    A tech columnist? And here I thought I’d been in the music business — as critic and composer, plus other things — for more than 30 years.

  15. says

    Uh…perhaps Ms. Heiligman missed “another [review] from my wife, in the Washington Post.”

    I assure you it’s not a secret that Anne Midgette and Greg Sandow are married. (See his occasional references to her here; see his personal web site, etc.)

    Anne has her own blog at this point and (unless the WashPost is editing her blog postings for content), she can put snarky thoughts there.

    Greg, it seems to me it wouldn’t be all that tough to figure out a minimum cost for the concert. Airline fares aren’t secret; the cost to rent Carnegie Hall for X hours of concert and Y of rehearsal (if they rehearsed there) isn’t a secret; one could make a few guesses at the fees for Lang Lang, MTT, Yuja Wang, etc. But I’m also not sure it matters past: a whole lot more than staging a typical concert at Carnegie.

    Thanks, Lisa. I did smile at the thought that I should disclose the fact of my marriage. I keep geekily making sure that people I meet in the business know who my wife is, if anything comes up that makes that knowledge necessary. And people keep smiling at me, as if I were an overeager little kid, and saying, “Oh, it’s OK. Everybody knows…”

    They did some rehearsing at Juilliard, for whatever that’s worth. Don’t know if they had to pay anything for it. We’d also have to add what’s probably the hefty cost of the visuals, which were quite elaborate. And maybe subtract some of the Carnegie costs, since maybe Carnegie donated all or part of that. And then add what was, I truly hope, a substantial fee to 21C, who handled the publicity, and had to engage at least one freelance extra staff member to handle the enormous workload.

    Going back to the delightful subject of credentials and secrets, thanks again for coming to my defense. Maybe you can get me a job as a tech columnist, if this music thing doesn’t work out.

  16. says

    Thank you for this review. I have been skeptical of the whole YouTube Symphony thing from the get go. I confess that I did listen to a few of the audition tapes, and I got that horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that I always get when I have to judge young musicians in real life. It felt too much like real work to listen, so I tuned out.

    The multi-mediac nature of the concert as well as the self-congratulatory junk that you mentioned happened constantly is, as far as I’m concerned, the opposite of what I look for in musical experience. I felt that the movement of this, and movement of that nature of the concert screamed loudly to validate the reality of listeners’ short attention spans, and the importing of “star soloists” reinforced the notion that the “best” music comes from “brand names” like Ma and Lang-Lang.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love YouTube. I use it for my music appreciation classes constantly. I depend on it for some totally out of print recordings that very kind people have shared there. There is much for musicians to learn from the performances, particularly the historic ones, that are available on YouTube.

    Perhaps if YouTube (or Google) would use some of its revenue to fund regional orchestras around the world, giving musicians who are in need of work a way of making part of a living at playing music I would be impressed.

    I would be impressed if YouTube were to give broadcast contracts to professional symphony orchestras in need of financial help in these difficult financial times, and broadcast those concerts on YouTube (like they broadcast their own). Perhaps I would be impressed if they would use their money to help raise the quality of orchestra and band programs in public schools, and help pay for instruments and for good teachers, and for instrument repairs.

    YouTube showed the world at large that there are “classical” musicians everywhere, and they showed themselves to be an organization committed to supporting classical music. Maybe it is time for them to take the next step and do something to keep music alive in the non-virtual world: the world that most of use should spend more time living in and musicians should be able to make a living from.

    That’s an exciting idea you had, for Google to support some orchestras. You got me thinking, and one variant I came up with would be for Google to bring some student and youth orchestras to Carnegie Hall, and then feature their performances on YouTube, complete with interviews with the musicians.

    One thread in all the hype at the concert, and before, was how important the YouTube Symphony was for the future of classical music. How it offered hope, etc. But one constantly hopeful fact is that many young people are already involved, studying classical instruments, playing in youth orchestras, going to music schools. They’re at least as good an indicator of classical music’s future, I’d think, as the YouTube Symphony.

    So if Google made a mistake, as I think they did, in bringing their fledgling orchestra into Carnegie Hall (with all the attendant hype about how Carnegie Hall is the pinnacle of classical music, and how it’s a privilege to play there, reinforcing the belief that the performance is going to be especially good), they could make up for this by finding three or more really terrific youth and student orchestras, in the US or elsewhere, and bringing them to Carnegie for concerts. With the Google/YouTube names prominently attached.

  17. says

    I am back. Right now I am watching the Act Two of the concert. In fact, with You Tube’s new bookmarklet, I am downloading it in mp4 with audio in .mp3. I already got Act One.

    This thing is fantastic. Anyone watching or just listening for the music as a concert just does not get it.

    Convergence? maybe too big a word. But we have Classical Music, we have many young and disparately talented kids, and we have the whole thing on the computer, which is where Classical Music is going to live.

    I write on Public Radio and serious music. The future of the dissemination of Classical Music is the internet and the core will be Public Radio.

    But, wow! The Metropolitan opera is now available in some movie theaters around the country for some performances. Maybe next it will be on YouTube or something like it. Then, maybe the NY Phil, or BSO. They are already on PBS/ But that is so limiting. The internet is global.

    I loved the concert. How about the John Cage? Did it set your teeth on edge, or did it awaken you to the Master.

    And, how about the kid playing the Mac laptop. Wild!! You don’t think kids reacted to that.

    I mean, the whole idea is to get serious music out and into the whole culture, for those who will absorb it. Maybe they will pick up an instrument. I wish I played a musical instrument.

    Maybe also, they will got to Amazon and buy something that they heard and liked in mp3. Or they can go to some other seller.

    I think that the presence of MTT is evidence of the importance of this whole thing.

    Bon Chance.


  18. says

    Greg, I do know various technical journalists, but I could be more helpful if you were looking for a tech writing job at a major web search company….not that we have any openings at the moment.

    As far as why Google & YouTube would do this, consider the most visible way Google makes money: ads revenue. (I work for Google and am not comfortable saying much more than that.)

  19. says

    Mr. Mitnick – Seriously, you think the future of classical music is on public radio? Most public radios dropped all classical music program in the 1980s or 90s. I see no signs of a comeback.

    Classical music is a style best appreciated live – well, most music is. It’s not going to live primarily on the Internet.

  20. says

    Having worked in the field of supporting art and history for 30 years, I am not a snob about the occasional use of glib/popular/trendy Willy-Sutton-that’s-where-the-money-is tactics to draw attention to an artform or event. Our own foray, WrestleManiArt (yes, it’s what you think it is) is proof of that. (I have NEVER seen more press at an art event in my life). But whether a YouTube symphony or a cookie-cutter public art project, the goal is a thoughtful approach to learning from the event and to figure out what happens next. I’m a big proponent of valuing participation AND professionalism. And I agree that self-congratulation should not overshadow simple congratulations. But these kind of events cannot and should not become an end unto themselves. They are stepping stones to our collective MISSIONS.

    What should Google, do next? I like the posted idea of packaging and supporting a handful of excellent youth orchestras. I like that this viral success can lead to other deeper levels of viral success. We are still techo-toddlers–crawling before we can walk, walking before we can run. I like that a corporate giant like Google CARES about classical music. Let’s help them care more!

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