I covered the You Tube Orchestra’s trip to New York for BBC World Service radio and the Sunday Herald. The following report was broadcast on April 17, 2009. Click on the play button to listen. The article was published two days later.
Classical music has been pronounced dead so many times that any claim of re-birth should be viewed with scepticism. On Wednesday night, at Carnegie Hall in New York, the You Tube Symphony Orchestra made the first grand gesture of a campaign to persuade young people that with talent, discipline and a broadband internet connection they can swim against the cultural flow that values celebrity over artistry.
The orchestra was assembled from scratch, in online auditions that mimicked the standard pop idol selection process, inviting You Tube’s users to vote for their favourite videos. More than three thousand musicians entered, from all over the world. To put that in perspective, when the regional heats of America’s Next Top Model were held in New York last month, well over a thousand women turned up, causing a riot on Broadway.
At the Juilliard School in Manhattan, conductors Michael Tilson Thomas and Tan Dun led fewer than a hundred winners through an intensive three day workshop, designed to transform fledgling professionals and gifted amateurs – a Romanian car mechanic, a full time poker shark, a surgeon from California and a Swedish trombone player on leave from the Malaysian Philharmonic – into an orchestra worthy of the name.
“Conventional orchestras prepare for themselves at home for two weeks before they come for their first rehearsal,” Tan Dun told me. “Here the first sounding was good, so you can tell, the online practicing is really working well.” None of the participants had ever met, but they had been playing along to the same web score since the first round of auditions.
David France, a violinist from Bermuda, said “everyone played from the depths of their personality, their instruments, their culture. It was almost like an authentic personification of ‘E Pluribus Unum’ – out of the many, one.” Although the universal language of music was invoked regularly, for once transcending cliche, rehearsals were conducted in English, with no translation.
The internet has revived classical music, on blogs, web only radio stations and projects like Keeping Score, in which the San Francisco Symphony explores iconic works note by note. Naxos Records has demonstrated that there is a healthy market for online music sales, both as one-off purchases and through its $20 annual subscription service. But this is by far the most high-profile attempt to create a broad, participatory network of sonata-lovers. The You Tube Symphony website has been viewed 15 million times.
The concert programme was designed to showcase classical music as a vital, global artform, with a brand new composition by Mason Bates – all dramatic crescendos and glitching techno beats – alongside traditional crowd-pleasers from Brahms, Wagner, Mozart and Villa-Lobos.
Chinese composer Tan Dun had written Internet Symphony Number One ‘Eroica’ for the occasion, welding scrap yard rhythms to one of Beethoven’s most familiar themes. A percussionist from Hong Kong played plumber’s pipes and alloy wheels, strung up at the back of the stage.
Inspirational video messages from participants, hand-picked for diversity, were projected across the auditorium’s grand ceiling. Soloists Gil Shaham and Yuja Wang joined in for two numbers each. The musicians played with visible passion, so it would be churlish to complain about the odd moment of incoherence. How could anyone expect these enthusiasts, however gifted, to match up to a professional ensemble on three days practice?
Anne Midgette, of the Washington Post, offered a less than generous assessment. “The orchestra sounded ragged, uneven, of wildly different quality,” she wrote. “It sounded, in fact, like a lot of different people talking at one another in many different languages – which is, of course, what it was.”
Brazilian cellist Larissa Ferreira De Mattos had taken her first ever plane trip to get to New York, but she was an exception, in an orchestra drawn almost entirely from developed countries, with not one African. That has to change if this project is to successfully challenge the preconception that classical music is a pastime for the privileged few.
“Classical music shouldn’t always be an elite event. It should be an event for most imaginative people,” Tan Dun told me. He hoped the project would continue to attract “a young crowd and people who love tradition, people who are sophisticated but also people who are crazy.”
David France had come to New York directly from India, where he had been teaching violin to students in Kodaikanal, high in the hills of Tamil Nadu. “I would love to become a violin ambassador to the world. Send me to Africa,” he said.
This is how the You Tube Symphony Orchestra will be judged: not on one performance at Carnegie Hall, but by whether it inspires teenagers to pick up a violin or a clarinet instead of an electric guitar or a games console. The standing ovation it received was a beginning, not a curtain call.