How to get to Carnegie Hall? Upload, upload, upload!
In case you missed their sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall in April 2009, the Youtube Symphony Orchestra is back.
This enterprise invites "the Youtube community" to watch audition tapes and select the musicians for an international orchestra that will travel to Australia and perform under Michael Tilson Thomas at the Sydney Opera House in the spring of 2011. It's the apotheosis of cultural crowdsourcing, replacing the opinions of experts with the will of the people. (A panel of judges makes the first cut, but the final decisions are the public's.)
Is this a good thing? Ed Sanders, Youtube's Senior Marketing Manager, who announced the plans at Carnegie's Zankel Hall last night, either couldn't or wouldn't answer the question of whether the Youtube orchestra is actually intended to challenge and transform classical music's paradigmatic procedures—its auditions, its venues—but the implication was that some of the radical democracy of the web needed to be brought to bear on the process of finding talent for orchestras.
He seems to have identified the one problem symphony orchestras don't actually have. What they lack is funding, corporate support for good programming; and what society lacks is accessible music education, from childhood, that would widen the ranks of people good enough to play at places like Carnegie Hall.
The group that benefits from the making of this new orchestra is Youtube itself, and a small number of lucky musicians, both amateur and professional, who get to play Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House by popular acclaim. At what cost such a boon to the classical music world is being offered by Youtube, Sanders would not say, even in response to a direct question from an audience member.
Corporate sponsorship has long been crucial to making the arts possible in this country, and Google has been a prolific corporate sponsor across a variety of causes, but rarely has it felt like this much of a ploy. (Ed Sanders hinted ominously at a future Youtube vocal competition.)
In its second season, the record for Youtube's contribution to classical music is 1-0 on marketing and operational success, and 0-1 on good music; there is no reason to expect this record to improve for 2011. Perhaps there'd be a chance if the central work of the selection process were different. What was played again and again during the announcement, though, was Mason Bates' Mothership (the composer, wearing a blue motorcycle jacket, said he had conceived of the orchestra as a space ship and the soloists as "docking" alongside it). Auditioners for "solo improvisers" in the orchestra must upload a clip of themselves improvising in a section of the piece set aside for that purpose.
It's not a bad idea—a make-your-own-cadenza competition—but Bates' insipid work, with its generic, film-score-esque soundscape and thin veneer of pseudo-electronica hipness, is just depressing. The composer said he was mindful of the limitations of computer speakers when composing it, and he emphasized the sounds that come through most easily: percussion and high-frequency jitters. It's worked for Top 40 music for years, and it results in just the sort of bland classical-lite that a large corporation would love. Music for the enlightened video-gamer, but not for a concert hall.
UPSTAIRS IN THE MAIN HALL AT CARNEGIE, A FEW MINUTES after the end of the Youtube presentation, was a far more traditional spectacle: the august Philadelphia Orchestra under its chief conductor, Charles Dutoit. The orchestra, and particularly the strings, sounded wonderful in a program that spotlit the cello section: Henri Dutilleux's Timbres, espace, mouvement, ou La nuit etoilée, based on Van Gogh's "Starry Night," calls for 12 cellists to form a semicircle around the conductor, and they have a fascinating interlude at the center of the swirling piece. In Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, with Jeremy Denk a calmly virtuosic soloist, the orchestra's principal cellist, Hai-Ye Ni, was excellent, as she and her section were in selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.
Is it stuffy or old-fashioned or Luddite or antidemocratic to believe that the Philadelphia Orchestra and its performance was the "real" thing in a way that the Youtube Symphony Orchestra simply is not? It's certainly true that the site has become invaluable to classical music fans, and for "amateur" musicians who regularly use the Youtubed performances of great artists to help figure out how their own playing ought to sound. But Philly's musicians were chosen carefully, by people who know what they are looking for, and they rehearse a wide range of repertoire with care. The Youtube orchestra is chosen by whomever, for whatever reasons, and comes together for a one-off evening of short selections.
Again it all comes down to money. There is something off-putting about Youtube's expenditure of literally untold money on a group that will exist for about a week, at a time when serious orchestras around the country are going bankrupt, and schools close down music programs that once put instruments in the hands of young potential talent. And for what? So that Youtube can get an advantageous branding opportunity? So that Mason Bates' Mothership can land on earth?
Every dollar spent for these reasons has to justify itself against the opportunity cost of not funding existing orchestras and music education programs. And this doesn't.