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.
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. I‘ll 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.