Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reality Checking the YouTube Symphony Orchestra

This morning's broadcast of Newshour on BBC World Service Radio ran a report on the YouTube Symphony Orchestra that served as a useful complement to the dispatches that James Oestreich has been filing for the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times. Unfortunately, there was no text version of this report; so I had to resort to the streaming audio version to take some notes and make sure I got my facts right. Most of the report involved an interview with Marshall Marcus, Head of Music for the Southbank Centre, one of the most important organizations for concert activity in London. Since Marcus was presumably giving the interview in London, it is important to recognize that he is not currently "on site" in New York, armed with a ticket to tonight's YouTube Symphony Orchestra performance in Carnegie Hall. Thus, he kept his remarks focused (in spite of prodding by the BBC announcer to do otherwise) on the idea of this orchestra, rather than on specific achievements, such as the rehearsals that Oestreich has covered or tonight's concert, which presumably will draw a large number of music critics.

Marcus made it clear that the only way to think about the YouTube Symphony Orchestra is as an experiment (which, I am happy to say, is a point I have been trying to emphasize ever since the project was launched). Questions about whether or not the ensemble is any good or whether they turn out to be the best (or worst) thing to have happened in Carnegie Hall miss out on the experimental premise. As Marcus put it, the critical question is, "Where does the project go from here?" When the Venezuelan government launched El Systema, the Venezuelan program that provided free music tuition and an instrument to every girl and boy, no matter how poor, 34 years ago, that was an experiment. Marcus cited it, as well he should, since the most visible product of that experiment, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, is currently a big hit at the Royal Festival Hall, which happens to be one of the major venues of the Southbank Centre; but he stressed that this orchestra did not become an international attraction overnight.

When I first wrote about the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project, I concluded:

… I am still glad that [conductor Michael Tilson] Thomas is not afraid to try new things. As a rule, we learn more from the experiments that do not turn out the way we anticipated. The future of classical music may depend on such persistent experimentation.

Oestreich's blog posts may have already revealed one of the unanticipated consequences of the experiment, which is that there are at least some well-intentioned amateurs (among those "happy and eager faces on the 'Meet the YouTube Symphony Orchestra' YouTube video") who have now received a serious reality check during Monday's rehearsals. Even if that reality check thoroughly blows away any thoughts they may have entertained about making a career as an orchestra musician, it will probably have a positive effect on the listening skills they bring to subsequent visits to orchestra performances. Given that any "future of classical music" will depend on having a strong and supportive base of listeners, we may emerge from tonight's final stage of the current experiment with a new approach to building that listener base, rather than a new approach to forming an orchestra.

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