From Sydney to cyberspace, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra beguiled listeners in the finale of the Web-based project. Some say the experiment is a key to popularizing classical music; others see a publicity gimmick.
The musicians met at the Sydney Opera House, but played around the world
The Grand Finale concert of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (YTSO) that was streamed from Sydney, Australia on March 20 was the culmination of a media-saavy process.
Ordinarily, for many classical musicians, orchestra auditions are high-pressure, sometimes painful events that involve playing for a seasoned and critical jury. But in the age of YouTube, the first step on the path to the Sydney Opera House was as simple as uploading a video from one's living room.
Over 2,000 submissions were sent in by musicians auditioning for membership into the YTSO, with winners selected by the video-sharing network and professionals from leading orchestras around the world.
After the final selections were made, orchestra members from 33 countries such as Hungary, Argentina and South Korea were flown to Australia for a week-long summit that included rehearsals, master classes, small concerts and street performances. The concert finale on March 20th saw the musicians play works by composers as diverse as Percy Grainger, Johann Sebastian Bach, Benjamin Britten, Alberto Ginastera and Igor Stravinsky.
Music in a globalized world
Partners in this year's venture included the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic and the Sydney Opera House and others, with the project building on the success of the first YouTube Symphony Orchestra in 2009, which brought professional and amateur musicians to New York's Carnegie Hall.
It's that globalized cooperation that makes the whole project work. For instance, in the weeks leading up to the audition deadline for this year's orchestra performance, members of the Berlin and London Philharmonics provided master classes for candidates in the form of online videos.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the YouTube Sympony Orchestra in 2009
Along with players from seven other orchestras, they narrowed down the thousands of submissions and, combined with YouTube community votes, offered their selections. Michael Tilson Thomas, YTSO conductor and music director of the San Francisco Symphony, reviewed the input and named the winners.
Sarah Willis, a horn player with the Berlin Philharmonic who was at the summit in Australia to mentor the brass section, said that with the exception of a few bloopers, the videos generally showed a high standard.
"There's an awful lot of talent out there," she said. "And the fascinating thing is where the videos come from: Mongolia, Sweden and China."
The Internet helps make it clear how many great musicians there are all over the world, said Roman Riedel, the YTSO trombone player from Germany.
Seeking a unified sound
"A few years ago you never would have known that there was a great viola player in Malaysia," he said. "The internet really brings all corners of the world closer together."
He also said he thinks modern technology and globalization will help make it possible for the disparate YouTube Orchestra players to achieve a unified sound in a short period of time.
"Through globalization, sound concepts are moving together more and more," Riedel said. "Every orchestra may have a distinctive sound, but conservatories have become so international. One learns a way of playing that can work anywhere."
Working around the world
International orchestral academies are no novelty in classical music. Rachelle Hunt, a 24-year-old violinist and intern with Germany's WDR Radio Symphony Orchestra who was selected to perform at this year's summit, has toured several continents with the prestigious Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival and other summer programs. She was especially eager to travel to Australia, however, citing it as one of the main reasons she auditioned for the YouTube Symphony.
Uploading audition videos is as easy as 1-2-3
Still, working together for only one week was not much time to prepare for the YTSO concert finale in Sydney.
"It takes time to congeal as an orchestra," she said. "Sometimes even six weeks isn't enough."
Nevertheless, Hunt considers the project an important means of creating more interest in classical music and promoting intercultural understanding.
"Whenever you meet someone from another country you realize that certain stereotypes aren't true," she said. "And music is one of the best ways to bring people together because there are no language barriers."
This year's competition, for instance, included a search for four soloists to improvise episodes to "Mothership," a new orchestral piece by American composer Mason Bates. The musicians chosen include a player of Guzheng, or Chinese zither, from Beijing, and an electric guitarist from Brazil. The remaining body of the orchestra includes musicians from 32 countries, ranging from a clarinetist from Arizona who had never traveled overseas, to Germany's Riedel, trombonist in the Bad Kissingen Kurorchester who enjoys playing the vuvuzela.
More than just summer camp?
Still, the project has not been without its detractors. Los Angeles Times critic Marcia Adair argued in a culture blog that the YTSO endeavor was tantamount to a glorified orchestra summer camp. While she said the project sounded like fun, she decried what she said was media hype about intercultural understanding, noting that many orchestras are already very culturally mixed - and expressing doubt that a one-time orchestra project would make any fundamental impact.
Is YouTube a gangway to classical for young people?
"As far as the digital meeting place goes, there are already hundreds of classical music blogs and dedicated social networking sites," she wrote.
But she also noted YTSO's unique position. "As a privately funded enterprise, it doesn't need to satisfy government requirements or compromise on programming to keep elderly patrons sweet," she wrote.
And, statistics point to the fact that, media hype or not, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra may well be more than just a glorified summer camp - in fact it could have a broad impact on public opinion. The YouTube Symphony Orchestra internet channel has received over 18 million views worldwide, and three times as many people voted for this year's orchestra as compared to the first time around in 2008.
Auditioning in cyberspace is also very different than auditioning in the real world, some of the YouTube performers said. An audition video can be taped ad infinitum until the performer feels it is good enough - which is very different from how the process goes in the real world, violinist Hunt pointed out.
"In a live audition you only get one chance and if you screw it up, you have to wait until next time," she said. She added that it was much less stressful to perform in the comfort of her home.
Classical music popularity
The YouTube Symphony's greatest strength may lie in its ability to attract a broader audience for classical music. Berlin-based horn player Willis believes that the online platform is fantastic for the art form, even if die-hard concert goers will say you can't have the same experience outside the concert hall.
"Hopefully when people watch from their home computers, they will be more encouraged to attend live performances," she said, just before the Sydney concert this month.
"We need to attract a younger generation of audience members, otherwise in ten or twenty years we might not have any. And if you can reach them through a medium like YouTube, which they know and love, then all the better."
Author: Rebecca Schmid
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn / Louisa Schaefer