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The Viral Orchestra: Final Thoughts on YouTube's Symphony

Musicians in the YouTube Symphony Offer Unsteady Performance, by Anne Midgette.
The real news: Carnegie Hall allowed the audience to shoot video and photograph. My video is pretty unsteady, too, but footage of the entire concert is going to be posted on the YouTube Symphony channel sometime today. [Edited to add: Here it is.]

Last night's concert, for all of the glitz, was an anticlimax. The real point of the YouTube Symphony, it seems to me after spending a few hours talking to players and hearing rehearsals, was what happened before the show: the connections, the conversations, and the excitement happening around Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School, which provided rehearsal space.

Whatever else the YouTube Symphony was, it was fantastically exciting for its performers, who were plucked from their daily lives and treated like star musicians for a few days. Just the chance to work with the top-flight mentors - about a dozen professional musicians worked closely with many of the players during the rehearsal period - was worth the trip for many participants.

Ted Atkatz, a professional percussionist (who quit a tenured position with the Chicago Symphony to form a rock band) and one of the mentors, said that the international response – the press and television cameras from national networks around the globe, including Al-Jazeera – “makes me question why we were so skeptical of this idea, and why other countries, as is evidenced by the media presence, are embracing this idea. I admit to also being suspicious. But it’s clear that this has been a highly productive event. Not only for PR, for Google, for YouTube, but for these kids. They’re getting a ton out of it.”
(read more after the jump)

Before the event, there was a lot of interest in having the symphony make other appearances and possibly tour, though YouTube's Ed Sanders said, "We have to crawl before we can walk." I'm not sure whether last night's concert will be widely seen as enough of a success to merit that; it seemed to me on the whole that the audience was excited but the music-industry professionals rather disappointed. (Judge for yourself from the complete video of the performance.)

But the real point, and an area in which YouTube can be particularly helpful, is making classical music accessible to more people. Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall's Executive Director, put it well at a press conference on Tuesday, saying that today the level of music-making is higher than it's ever been, but that classical music itself is less important to most people's lives. "We have to invert that pyramid," he said - speaking, rather poignantly, to a group of journalists who, to judge by their questions, did indeed see classical music as an exotic phenomenon.

So the YouTube Symphony's real service was not in opening up Carnegie Hall to a new audience, laudable as that is. It was in empowering its players. And the goal of future initiatives - if, indeed, the company is in a position to fund them (I mentioned YouTube's financial woes in yesterday's post) - should be to extend that empowerment. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see a whole El-Sistema-like network of players grow up, brought together by music and enjoying making it as much as last night's performers did?


Thanks to everyone for the intriguing range of responses to classical music on YouTube in the comments section of yesterday’s post: from rejection (I concur with the commenter who isn’t wild about watching bad video on a computer screen) to all-out endorsement. One commenter uses it to see great performances of the past; another, to find singers of the present. Another cites YouTube’s use by institutions as a promotional tool, though yet another observes that the promotional videos are often cheesy. (The degree to which classical music feels it has to dumb itself down in its use of so-called new media is fodder for several other blog posts.)

One thing I’d throw into the discussion is the undeniable importance of YouTube for the younger generation of performers. Young voice students, certainly, are a lot more aware of the great singers of the past then they were even five years ago, and I think the main reason is that you can hear all of them on YouTube.

I was also intrigued by the ways that some of the YouTube Symphony performers use YouTube. Certainly there were a fair number of music students who don’t have any particular interest inYouTube per se. But there were also people who use YouTube as the main outlet for their musical life, like George Durham, a cellist who went to Peabody, plays poker for a living, and posts videos to YouTube of himself playing multi-track cello arrangements of everything from Rossini to Metallica. (He told me he had a large fan base in Poland, where they apparently like Metallica.) Or Nina Perlove, a flute professor at Northern Kentucky University, who posts teaching as well as performance videos and has more than 3,500 subscribers to her YouTube channel. (Perlove initially made and posted teaching videos of the YouTube Symphony flute parts, thinking it was more something for her students than for her, before deciding to take the plunge and audition herself.)

Again, these are illustrations of YouTube empowering a grassroots kind of music making: helping people find different ways to make music a part of their lives. Which brings me back to my original point: this is at bottom about amateurism in the best sense, meaning a deep love of music.

"I still don’t feel like I want to be making money from it," Durham said. "I don’t need to pursue that. I’m just going to do whatever I want for fun and put it on [YouTube], and if people like it, then that’s good."

By Anne Midgette  |  April 16, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  news  
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It is nice to see YouTube is affording opportunities to those with access to the internet to gain opportunities they probably would never have had. As greater numbers gain access to the internet,hopefully, many similar opportunities will arise for them. What is your take on the latest YouTube phenomena...
The Scot Heard Round the World ( I wonder if Dame Joan Sutherland would have had such a following...

Posted by: donahuer | April 16, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

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