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.
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.
Lawrence Edelson 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.
Have you ever heard a newly assembled youth orchestra after just two rehearsals?
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.
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?
@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.
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.
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:
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.
Richard Mitnick 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.
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!
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.
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?
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 ArtsJournal.com blogs.
Have you been able to learn 1) exactly how much this entire project cost, and 2) who paid for it all?
Margot Heiligman 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!
Lisa Hirsch 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.
Elaine Fine 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.
Richard Mitnick 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.
Lisa Hirsch 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.)
Lisa Hirsch 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.
Margot Knight 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, et.al 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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