As I write this — 18 hours after watching the YouTube Symphony Orchestra Grand Finale concert — the only musical thing that sticks in my mind is Romanian bassoonist Laurentiu Marius Darie’s excellent playing in Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and William Barton’s mind-blowing didgeridoo beatbox. It’s unfortunate but not terribly surprising.
The concert was performed on Sunday at the opera house in Sydney where the orchestra members chosen via auditions by YouTube had been rehearsing for the week with Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony.
In an irony so acute it’s almost painful, what will surely become one of the most-watched classical music concerts in recent memory was never really meant for an audience. Like the final showcase after a week of band camp, when all the parents come to collect their children, Sunday’s concert was all about the players’ experience. The problem is: If you weren’t there it doesn’t really mean anything.
Making music is an intimate activity, so musicians tend to become friendly with each other quicker than, say, delegates at a dental convention –that is one of music’s great gifts. What digital projections, sand artists, new compositions, star soloists, a massive budget and buckets of goodwill couldn’t hide was that it takes more than a week to make an orchestra.
The biggest indicator of inward nature of the evening was the program. By the time the last notes of “Entr’acte II” from Schubert’s “Rosamunde” faded away, nearly three hours had passed. As often happens at band camp final concerts, Thomas chose egalitarianism over aesthetics and programmed several small, forgettable pieces featuring individual sections instead of a big symphony.
Undoubtedly it was enormous fun for the brass section to work together on Strauss’ “Fanfare for the Vienna Philharmonic,” but it’s just not very interesting to listen to. Jettisoning all the small pieces and concentrating the limited rehearsal time on “Ein Heldenleben” or Mahler’s Fifth would have made for a much more gripping concert.
It might not have been technically perfect, but engaging repertoire would have garnered more enthusiasm from all involved parties than an obscure piece by Australian composer Percy Grainger or an unimaginative new commission.
Of course, quibbles about repertoire can be put down to personal preference in the end, but what’s been nagging ever since the YTSO 2011 was announced is the imbalance between rhetoric and results. There has been a lot of talk about how music brings people together across boundaries of culture, class and religion; the democracy of YouTube auditions and the intersection of technology and classical music culture. When all that the ideological chatter is turned off, we should be left with music. Instead there is nothing. At this point in its development the YTSO doesn’t have the chops to stand on its own.
In order for the YTSO to grow into something really meaningful, in order for it to stop telling us it’s revolutionary and actually change things, the organizers need to decide what it wants the orchestra to be. Band camp? A training orchestra? Good karma for Google?
It may seem that I’m hating on the YTSO for being a bit of fun. For not being serious. That’s not the case at all. There are many youth and adult amateur orchestras around the world who have boatloads of fun while still keeping the bar extremely high. The two needn’t be mutually exclusive.
At the moment, the YTSO is a unique position. As a privately funded enterprise, it doesn’t need to satisfy government requirements or compromise on programming to keep elderly patrons sweet. Its association with YouTube means that the orchestra can easily able to publicize its activities.
In view of all the available resources, the lack of imagination and willingness to settle for a middling performance is depressing.
Another two or three weeks of rehearsal with a mini-tour on the schedule…now that would be something to write home about.
Despite my disappointment, there were a few rays of sunshine. Here are some highlights (full video above):
0:22:18 Cameron Carpenter takes the Opera House organ for a drive and the digital projections get a little crazy.
1:07:25 The most entertaining part of the evening. Berlin Philharmonic hornist Sarah Willis turns intermission commentator. If you’re short on time, the very best part is at 1:18:42. Vox populi FTW!
1:29:00 William Barton beatboxes on his didgeridoo.
2:08:40 Ukrainian artist Ksenia Simanova does amazing things with sand.
2:20:10 The orchestra plays the last 3 dances from Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”
2:35:58 The orchestra plays “Entr’acte II” from Schubert’s “Rosamunde” in honor of victims of natural disasters in Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
First published in the Los Angeles Times