Online Orchestra Day 3: Carnegie Hall performance

Day Three: Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Carnegie Hall Performance

Going into tonight’s performance I’m not expecting to be surprised, having attended the dress rehearsal, but one of the first things that strikes me is the less-than-formal mood. I arrive late to Carnegie Hall, and am told initially that I’ll have to wait until the end of the piece to enter Stern Auditorium, but then I’m shown right to my seat in the middle of Harrison’s Music from Canticle No. 3. The audience seems younger than the typical Carnegie crowd—surprising and probably something organizers were betting on, too.

The usual classical-music media is here—Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times and the New Yorker’s Alex Ross file past me during intermission—but I also recognize one of the CBS reporters from the first rehearsal, and the army of video  cameras I’m used to seeing at these YouTube events is positioned at the back of the audience. And the international makeup of the orchestra on stage means that press are here from all around the world as well.

The technical elements are working much better: we actually see the full video portrait of the poker player where during the rehearsal there had just been a still image with audio. While certain video elements like these vignettes are inviting, some of them don’t seem to fit, and others seem downright distracting. The video accompaniment to Joshua Roman’s performance of the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, titled “Women in Art,” featured timeless portraits of women—the Mona Lisa and Botticelli’s Venus among them—morphing into each other. Unfortunately, the images move so quickly that the video highlights technology and the skills of the PhotoShop virtuoso who put the presentation together, rather than complement Roman’s very fluid performance. (The gender stereotyping is a little blatant as well: pair the most sweet-sounding and understated piece on the program with images of the ideal female, why don’t we!)

One pleasant surprise is Tan Dun’s Internet Symphony No. 1, which the composer and conductor prefaced with remarks that characterized the Internet as an invisible “Silk Road.” When I heard the piece for the first time, as many did, in a video performance by the London Symphony Orchestra, I thought it boring and clichéd, seemingly trying to evoke the awards ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics as much as anything. But tonight, the percussion playing is riveting, and the whole ensemble hangs together much better than I heard in rehearsal on Day One.

The highlight of the program for me is the preview of Mason Bates’s B-Sides. Here the projections really augmented the music—trippy, strobe-like projections spreading out from the stage across the walls and ceiling. These visual elements coupled with the throbbing dance grooves instantly makes Carnegie feel like a dance club. Debussy’s Nuages worked well, too. Gradually, I give in to the moment and got lost in the projected clouds drifting across the Stern Auditorium ceiling. As the work concluded I was struck by the silence in the auditorium—none of the coughing or rustling that I hear so often at orchestra performances.

The guest artists are a pleasure to hear and see. Yuja Wang seems to set a new standard for pianistic virtuosity. Measha Brueggergosman offers an vital and engaging account of John Cage’s Aria while the orchestra simultaneously performs his improvisatory Renga, one of the musicians at one point actually mimicking Brueggergosman’s wolf howl. Most of the audience probably doesn’t notice that the sheet music projected behind violinist Gil Shaham is in a different meter than the music he plays, the Finale from Mozart’s Concerto No. 5.

After the concluding piece on the program, the Finale from Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, no one seems to want to go home. There is a standing ovation and gushing thank-yous from Tilson Thomas. The orchestra finishes with a reading of the “Danse macabre” from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and is rewarded with more standing ovations. I leave Carnegie Hall thinking that I wasn’t the only one with mixed feelings about the whole affair, but thinking also what a bold project this has been, and how YouTube and Google especially deserve recognition. As one member of the orchestra, a young physicist from New York City, put it in his video portrait: “I think it’s great they did an orchestra. Of all the things they could’ve done, you know, they could’ve had the YouTube International Basketball team.”

The following morning, the question remains: Was the YouTube Symphony Project a success? As I hinted in my previous post, the answer depends on what one perceives the aims of the project to be. When one audience member at Tuesday morning’s press conference asked why it wouldn’t have been better to do such a public-friendly program with the San Francisco Symphony than a crack band of video-saavy amateurs, Tilson Thomas claimed the question missed the point. The point, he said, was to harness the powers of the Internet and classical music to bring together people from all over the world. In that case, the project has succeeded.

At the same time, it’s not a little alarming to hear such a well-regarded member of the classical community dismiss questions of quality. Given the crowd at the Carnegie concert, it seems the project has also succeeded in another goal of exposing new audiences to classical music. Is a grab-bag program of snippets of works, performed by talented yet under-prepared—and overworked—amateur musicians, the music often overpowered by multimedia hypnosis, really the face classical music wants to show its new acquaintances? Do the first movement of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 and the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth carry the same weight without the rest of the larger works?

Still, I, for one, enjoyed myself, and if there’s a new flock that can be brought into the fold by feeling the same way, I’m all for it. But the challenge, as this project makes clear, is to harness the tools of the 21st century to broaden classical music’s reach without sacrificing quality or context. Whether it’s through YouTube or some other new medium, how the community meets that challenge will be interesting to watch in the coming years. I’m optimistic.