Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra

The launch of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra seems to have attracted considerable attention, not just in the San Francisco Chronicle (due to the involvement of Michael Tilson Thomas) but in just about every one of my RSS news feeds, international (because of the participation of the London Symphony Orchestra) as well as national. The vision of this endeavor is still only "loosely defined," as Joshua Kosman politely put it in his Chronicle article; but, beyond trying to summarize the first pass at implementation details, Kosman did well to point out what may be the most important underlying motive:

For Thomas, credited as the enterprise's artistic adviser, this is another installment in his efforts - as in the Symphony's "Keeping Score" project - to harness new technology in the service of music education.

This interested me far more than Tan Dun's contribution of "a four-minute collaborative piece" for the first event. Symphony orchestras are only going to survive if they can count on an audience base that is not only interested in their repertoire but also appreciative of the extent to which every concert educates in the art of listening. Having said that, I should observe that over the summer I wrote a blog post that made it clear that I was not a particularly big fan of Keeping Score, not to mention any number of posts skeptical of Web 2.0 evangelism. Nevertheless, I have discovered that YouTube is becoming an interesting vehicle for promoting piano recitalists; and I know at least a few concert-goers who seem to enjoy using YouTube to learn about those performers. Still, the fact that Tan's contribution will be only four minutes long points out YouTube's biggest shortcoming, which is that it is best at distributing performances of encore-length scale. I view this as a shortcoming because I think the major challenge that classical music faces involves getting future audiences to accept and then enjoy the longer attention space it requires. After all, one of Thomas' greatest contributions to the performance repertoire has been his understanding of the massive symphonies of Gustav Mahler; and my most recent experience at Davies Symphony Hall was his second performance of Mahler's eighth symphony with the San Francisco Symphony. I am pessimistic that YouTube will be able to deliver listening experiences on this scale and even more pessimistic that the "mashup" techniques described in Kosman's article will compensate for this difficulty. (Arch-conservative that I am, I find it hard to believe that any mashup can contribute to cultivating the attention span that is so integral to listening to classical music!) I also worry that the sound itself has a lot to do with the experience and that the Internet is not yet up to snuff in delivering the necessary sound quality. (Even the best audio reproducing technology cannot do justice to all the sounds in the Mahler eighth, and I have yet to be convinced that even those piano encore clips really do justice to the subtleties that can make or break a performance.)

Having dwelled on these negative points, I am still glad that 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. However, my own druthers lean more in the direction of further exploitation of HD broadcasting to movie houses. I believe that, in the spirit of the work of Jordan Whitelaw, proper video direction can contribute to the concert listening experience, just as Barbara Willis Sweete used video to enhance the experience of watching the Metropolitan Opera production of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (again appealing to solutions that can deal with performances that require a sustained attention span). Thus, having been trained by Thomas to be a better Mahler listener, I would have paid the price of an HD Metropolitan Opera movie ticket to see any of the London Symphony Orchestra performances of the complete cycle of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler during its 2007–2008 season, all conducted by Valery Gergiev, particularly if the video was directed in the spirit of Whitelaw and Sweete. YouTube may have its place, but classical music is most appealing at its grandest. If technology is to serve music education, it should not neglect that sense of grandeur that makes so many concerts so rewarding.

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