I'm kind of amazed at some of the reactions I've been reading this morning to the YouTube Symphony Orchestra concert yesterday evening at Carnegie Hall--an event that's been billed as the culmination to an amazing experiment. From a Spanish guitarist to a Lithuanian birbyne player to a Colombian trombonist, with careers ranging from surgeon to professional poker player, an array of very enthusiastic players descended on Manhattan to see what they could do together once uploads became real-time and -space collaborations.
The first thing to establish is that this event wasn't really for us sitting in the hall, anyway--it was meant for a YouTube audience; we were just there to witness it. Breaking the concert up into a zillion little segments (a bit of music, a bit of talk, a bit of video), the organizers tried to replicate the YouTube experience of surfing from thing to thing. But in this case, the nature of a curated concert belies the cheerful anarchy of YouTube, the digital democracy of the internet; we were being led from piece to piece.
Another element that really didn't work was the ham-fisted video projections. There are many good examples of visual/aural mashups and collaborations that work beautifully (many, of course, on YouTube itself). But this was lowest-common-denominator silliness that didn't trust the audience's intellect or add another creative dimension--we don't need to see a flurry of notes seeming to froth out of Yuja Wang's head to know that she's playing the piano really, really fast.
In his comments of John Cage's Aria with Renga (with the superb Measha Brueggergosman good-humoredly tolerating both what sounded like Tilson Thomas' mispronunciation of her tongue-twisting last name--there was at least one extra "r"--and a live audience that I would like to think was laughing *with* her and Cage's antics), Tilson Thomas referred to his past participation in a Cage circus. And it suddenly occurred to me that if a circus wasn't the perfect metaphor for this evening, then a carnival was, with MTT as the barker: Hey, come one, come all--try out a little Brahms over here, a bit of Dvorak over there. Not your thing? How about some Mason Bates? No? Well, Tan Dun's percussion parts will "knock your socks off!" (Come to think of it, Tilson Thomas used that actual line in describing Yuja Wang's playing.)
The professional soloists rounded up to play with the YTSO--Wang, Brueggergosman, and Gil Shaham the most starry among them--are fine musicians who I'm sure came into this project knowing that this would be a fabulous way to reach out to an audience far, far larger than the usual suspects--and good on them. They're canny enough to know a good thing when they see it, even when the orchestra wasn't at all up to their regular standards.
And, truthfully, the enthusiastic, talented, and eager orchestra wasn't up to those standards, and it wouldn't have been fair to expect more, given the absurdly brief rehearsal time. If anything, inexperienced players need *more* rehearsal time, not less, even with warhorse repertoire like "Ride of the Valkyries" and the last movement of Tchaikovsky 4, let alone time to wrap their heads around Lou Harrison. But it was clear how proud and thrilled they all were to be on the stage of Carnegie Hall, and rightfully so.
Anyone who thought that this event was about experiencing the whole evening as a single experience with much of a through-line was, I think, missing the point. We were there to witness something that will live online in its chopped-up components. (While I don't envy at all other critics who were charged with reviewing this as they would any other concert, I do think that the New York Times review this morning *completely* missed the mark, inadvertently creating a good example of Why and How Old Media Doesn't Get It, At All.)
The internet and particularly this YouTube Symphony Orchestra project, on several levels, reminds me about what I am reading concurrently about toddler development. (Bear with me here.) For very little kids, creative activities are about the process, not the result: feeling paint squoosh on your fingers, and seeing what happens when you mix green and red and blue and black and purple together, is much more important than the finished product, as much as you enjoy hanging it up on the fridge and admiring it afterwords. Last night was just seeing part of the process in action, and not a final statement--at least, I hope so. The trick will be if YouTube and Google are willing to see this through for at least a little while longer.