Online Orchestra Day 2

Day Two: Tuesday, April 14, 2009
YouTube Symphony Orchestra Press Conference

As I walk into the YouTube Symphony’s press conference in Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse, a reporter from China Daily just steps ahead of me, the head of the London Symphony Orchestra’s record label LSO Live Chaz Jenkins, is speaking. To his left at the press table is Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall. To his right are Michael Tilson Thomas, artistic advisor and conductor for the YouTube Symphony; composer Tan Dun; Andy Berndt, a Google representative; and YouTube Product Marketing Manager Ed Sanders.

When Tilson Thomas takes the microphone to speak, he portrays the project as an excellent opportunity for the classical music community to engage with trends of the 21st century. The stylistic and historical diversity of classical music, he says, was very important to him in the artistic planning of the project. “I once looked up ‘classical music’ in the dictionary,” Tilson Thomas recalls, “and the definition said ‘Music of understatement, written in the 18th and 19th centuries.’ ” This incites laughter among the audience. The truth of the matter, Tilson Thomas says, is that “we don’t have to define classical music in the 21st century, we can just experience it.”

Before opening the floor up to questions, Sanders thanks everyone in attendance, particularly the guest artists who will perform with the orchestra tomorrow night at Carnegie Hall: violinist Gil Shaham, cellist Joshua Roman, composer Mason Bates, soprano Measha Brueggergosman, pianist Yuja Wang, and three students sponsored by the Lang Lang International Music Foundation: eight-year-old Anna Larsen, eight-year-old Charlie Liu, and ten-year-old Derek Wang, all pianists. The international reach of the project is made apparent once again by the journalists who ask questions—they’ve come from the Netherlands, Germany, and China, to name a just few of the countries. Asked what the project means for Google’s bottom line, Andy Brook deflects the question by stating that the project is more about allowing “anyone in the world the opportunity to play Carnegie Hall.”

One reporter directs a question to Tan Dun and Tilson Thomas about what it was like to get all the musicians together for the first time. Tilson Thomas notes that everyone had met briefly the night before, but the music can often change them in rehearsal. Soft-spoken people sometimes become “very powerful behind an instrument,” he says. Tan Dun’s answer seems much more esoteric. After telling a winding story about his first years living in New York, competing with a neighbor on who could be the first to play in Carnegie Hall, he recalls his first few seconds on the podium at rehearsal the previous day. He delayed his downbeat about “five seconds,” he says, having been momentarily paralyzed by the eyes of everyone in the orchestra, which felt like “windows from all corners of the earth.”
A reporter from Reuters asks about the challenges of bringing everyone together, not just in terms of the logistics but also reconciling different levels of musical training. Sanders recalls marveling at how many people there had been at the social gathering two nights before who had never even left their home country and were in awe just gazing out the window of the Parker Meridien Hotel. Tilson Thomas addresses the musical challenges, noting that while all players are skilled instrumentalists, they do have varying degrees of ensemble experience. But, he notes, videos of London Symphony musicians demonstrating parts from the selected repertoire served as sort of virtual masterclasses, to get everyone thinking in similar musical terms before physically coming together.

When one member of the audience asks whether there were any surprises in doing the project, Tilson Thomas replies, “Everything has been happening so fast, there hasn’t really been any time to be surprised.” Events in the classical music industry are often planned years in advance, he notes, and it’s the first time he’s ever been part of a project where the planning consisted of: “We’re doing something, we don’t know exactly what it will be, but it’s going to be at Carnegie Hall in four months.”

When the press conference is over, attendants start setting up the room for a string orchestra rehearsal. Tilson Thomas is away in a flash. The limited amount of time to prepare for tomorrow’s concert has by now become humorous, having been joked about multiple times during the press conference, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume he’s off to study scores. Besides Tan Dun’s Internet Symphony No. 1, “Eroica,” the program for tomorrow’s concert samples a variety of works from different styles and eras, including music by Bach, Bates, Brahms, Cage, Gabrieli, Mozart, and Villa-Lobos. Assistants struggle to get everyone out of the room as reporters swarm Tan Dun and the guest artists. One of my last glimpses is of a German reporter with a microphone bending over to interview eight-year-old Anna Larsen.

On the elevated plaza outside Walter Reade Theater I pass groups of string players I recognize from the previous day, apparently waiting for their rehearsal. Relaxed, hair still wet from morning showers, they smoke cigarettes and chat with each other, appearing no less at home than they might at their home conservator