Photo: Adam J.W.C.
I’m sitting in a friend’s St. Louis basement at 2 AM and just finished interviewing Matt Gray, a Jacobs School of Music Bass Performance major. Our conversation spanned 16 hours of time difference, which proved to be something of a technological struggle. We had to move from a Skype talk to a Facebook chat to accommodate data speed limitations, but the whole situation of our interview—hopefully minus the glitches—was symbolic of one of the central features of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra: It’s a project aimed toward representing technology’s ability to unite people across the globe.
The orchestra first performed in April 2009 at Carnegie Hall. It will put on its second performance—with a completely new group—at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday, March 20th.
The Jacobs School Representatives
Gray is among four IU students in the orchestra this time around. The roster also includes IU bassist Dave Milburn and violists Jasmine Beams and Caroline Gilbert.
The four went through a lengthy selection process, for which auditioning players posted YouTube videos of themselves playing repertoire selected by the site. As an optional new component this year, auditioning musicians could also improvise on their instruments as part of their videos. A committee of judges then selected players for each instrument and allowed YouTube users to vote on their favorites. Presented with users’ votes, the creative director, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, had the final say on who got in.
This year’s players take part in a week long program that consists of long days of rehearsals and master classes to prepare for both the main event on Sunday as well as smaller section concerts throughout the week.
Along with Tilson Thomas conducting the orchestra, coaches from a range of backgrounds, from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to the Vienna Staatsoper to the Silk Road Ensemble, lead sessions with the musicians.
The talent involved with the project was a big draw for Gray, who said that along with playing in the famed opera house, getting to play under Tilson Thomas was his main reason for joining the orchestra. “Michael’s very fun to work with, very much a collaborator,” Gray said about Tilson Thomas after a couple days of rehearsals. “It’s easy to tell people what to play but very hard to work with them to reach what you both want. I think that is one thing he really excels at.”
Assembling A United Sound From Disparate Worlds
Despite the talent working on the project, though, the orchestra is attempting a daunting task: They have one week to put together a program with an orchestra made up of players who have never met (with a few exceptions like the IU clan), range in abilities from professionals to students to amateurs, and come from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, from over 30 different countries.
The project met mixed reviews on its first go-around. The New York Times said the 2009 orchestra played “quite well,” but the Washington Post called it an “un-harmonic convergence,” the UK’s Guardian said it was “mediocre and pointless,” and a Los Angeles Times headline read, “The YouTube Symphony Orchestra is back for a second year – but why?”
Gray acknowledged the difficulties of playing with an unfamiliar group of people, but he remained optimistic. “I think I liked it how Richard Tognetti put it, that the first rehearsal is sort of like a blind date.” This orchestra will have more time to prepare for their concert—one week, compared to the hyper-intense, three-day schedule of the 2009 group—as well as a conductor who now has a bit of experience with the process (Tilson Thomas conducted the 2009 orchestra as well).
Gimmick? …Or 21st Century Challenge?
One of the main questions surrounding the project since its inception, and that still remains, has been YouTube’s motivation. The Guardian called it “no more than a YouTube gimmick.” And the New York Times’s Anthony Tommasini said, “I wish the concert had been less gimmicky and more substantive,” but he gave the site some credit: “The company did, after all, field an orchestra for this event, instead of ‘the YouTube International Basketball Team.’”
The players, too, seem content with YouTube’s efforts. “[YouTube] is really, really awesome,” Gray commented, satisfied with both the cash the site shelled out to rent the opera house for a week as well as the flight, hotel stay in the 4-Seasons (which Gray described as “swank”), $50 per diem allowance, and smartphone they provided for each participant.
Daniel Stein, a Jacobs doctoral student who played flute with the 2009 YouTube group, acknowledged the image-enhancement potential for YouTube but was also confident in the good nature of their intentions: “They also, I think, genuinely wanted to help to expose more people to classical music.”
Symbiosis For Musicians And YouTube
Stein pointed to a few ways in which his participation in the orchestra in 2009 has helped him since then, too. For one, he gained exposure directly. The day of the concert, he said, he and most of his colleagues got a couple thousand more hits each on their audition videos. Also, he said, auditioning got him into posting videos of his playing on YouTube, which he hadn’t done before. In a competitive field, he said, “It’s helpful for classical musicians… to have any way to help to publicize the work that you do.” His participation in the project, he speculates, has made people more likely to watch his other musical videos as well.
The orchestra’s program will feature Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird, and the premiere of American composer Mason Bates’s Mothership, which will include improvised solos by a Brazilian guitarist, a Chinese guzheng player, a Venezuelan violinist, and an Australian bassist. The concert will be broadcasted live this Sunday at 8 pm Sydney time (which is 5 am Sunday morning Eastern time!).