Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Where does the project go from here?"

That question that Marshall Marcus, Head of Music for the Southbank Centre, raised when the BBC interviewed him about the YouTube Symphony Orchestra was foremost in my mind this morning as I read Anthony Tommasini's review of their performance last night at Carnegie Hall on the New York Times Web site. Responsible critic that he is, Tommasini treated this concert like any other and, as usual, made some interesting judgment calls. After having read James Oestreich's account of the first day of rehearsals on Monday, I felt that Tommasini's overall assessment of "Quite well" was a promising one. However, like Marcus, I am more interested in last night's concert as an experiment with potential of informing us about the "future of classical music." Of course one should not speculate on the future without recognizing Paul Saffo's caveat: "The future always arrives late and in unexpected ways." So, rather than playing futurist games, I think it might be useful to point out some of the potential indicators, without going out on any limbs about just what may be indicated.

The first indicator was actually the color photograph of the interior of Carnegie Hall, take by Chad Batka for The New York Times, which preceded Tommasini's text. One could barely discern the hall itself amid the flood of color slides projected on just about any available surface. The performers on the stage were only some of the contributing elements of a multimedia extravaganza. This immediately raised a question: If the performers were sharing (competing?) with an abundance of supplementary media, would the act of listening still be primary to this particular concert experience? As Tommasini observed:

There were so many spotlights and projectors in the hall that pianissimo passages in the music had to compete with the whirring sounds of ventilating fans.

That question was further reinforced with Tommasini's report that the three-hour program for the evening "was a potpourri, just movements and excerpts from 15 wildly diverse works." Was this a rejection of the traditional listening experience in favor of a "pops" style aimed at shorter attention spans? Tommasini seemed to be pondering the same question in his account of Yuja Wang's solo appearance:

It was exasperating, however, to hear Yuja Wang, a brilliant young pianist, dash off a rippling account of the perpetual-motion Scherzo from Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. If the program had been differently conceived, she and the orchestra might have played the entire work, which is not that long. Instead, she played a showpiece solo encore, a stunningly difficult but empty-headed arrangement of the “Flight of the Bumble Bee.”

According to Associated Press Writer Martin Steinberg's account, there were further exasperations for those expecting a traditional concert experience:

The Internet generation of performers attracted a youthful crowd that had no reason to feel shy. The staid decorum was suspended for the three-hour concert, which featured 15 short pieces. Thomas sat on the podium at one point, watching pianist Yuja Wang fly through the "Flight of the Bumble Bee." Images of musical notes, geometric patterns and of the players were projected on the walls and ceiling, and the audience was encouraged to bring video cameras.

More representative of the event may have been the composition that Tan Dun created for this occasion, described by Tommasini as follows:

Tan Dun conducted the premiere of a piece written for the occasion, his Internet Symphony No. 1, “Eroica.” This five-minute crowd-pleaser takes riffs from Beethoven’s “Eroica” and folds them into a score teaming with clanking percussion, corny brass chorales, and perky passages that sounded as if Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon had somehow encountered the Lone Ranger.

Thanks to Claire Prentice's review for the London Telegraph, I discovered that a preview "mash up" performance of this work had already been uploaded to the YouTube site (and available for viewing at the beginning of Prentice's article). While I am, as a rule, not particularly big on "mash ups" (since I tend to see them as undermining live performance), I have to admit that this one was pretty effective; and it may even be that this composition works better as a well-crafted video object than as a concert performance. However, this was a video object, clearly a product of someone highly skilled in video editing who may or may not have had experience in performing music. The fact that it was so effective then raised the question of whether the "YouTube" part of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra may have emerged as more important than the "Symphony Orchestra" part.

Given this risk that the virtual world of YouTube could well drown out the physical world of Carnegie Hall, it is important to note that Michael Tilson Thomas used his opening remarks to his physical audience as a sort of exercise in expectation management:

We're meeting a lot of different worlds, the real time world, the online world and the experience of getting acquainted. For us it's been something between a classical music summit conference (and) scout jamboree combined with speed dating.

Perhaps ultimately the whole event had more to do with that "experience of getting acquainted" than with more the more substantive matters of musical performance that Tommasini found lacking; but just what kind of acquaintance was forming? I wonder if the summit conference may have actually been the most significant of Thomas' metaphors. Taken as a whole, the most important element of the experiment may have been the encounter of the YouTube world of performing through video clips with the more traditional world of the immediacy of musical performance "in the flesh." As is usually the case at a summit conference, there were both confrontations and compromises; but, in spite of Tommasini's misgivings, it seems as if there were more substantive deliverables last night than we tend to expect at summit gatherings of world leaders and diplomats.

It may well be that none of these observations will contribute very much to Marcus' primary question. Indeed, there is the risk that, as an experimental approach towards the "future of classical music," this project may not go anywhere. Having used its YouTube property to get this particular dog to walk on its hind legs, Google may decide that it has had enough of this project and go off in search of "the next cool thing." Since he wears a manager's hat, Marcus' major concern is with how the presentation of classical music events will be supported in the future. My guess is that he read Tommasini's account (and possible Steinberg's) with great interest; but he is probably still agonizing over what it will take to keep institutions like his Southbank Centre going, maintaining their reputation for high standards in a time of economic hardship. The greatest disappointment would be that we have emerged from this bold experiment with some exciting memories but with no lessons learned.

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