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YouTube Symphony: My Two Cents

April 17, 2009

images.jpegEveryone's talking about the YouTube Symphony project, which reached its culmination two evenings ago in a concert at Carnegie Hall led by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Reviews have been mixed. For example, the New York Times was mostly positive and the Washington Post, mostly negative. The blogosphere has been buzzing with comments about the event. Greg Sandow's detailed post at ArtsJournal yesterday voiced his disappointment with the razzle-dazzle of the event (the celebrities, the video projections, the TV coverage, the not-quite-as-wonderful-as-he'd-hoped musicianship etc). YouTube is packed with video clips concerning the event both by the musicians and other commentators. Here's a link to the "Internet Symphony Global Mash-Up" on the YouTube site. And here's a link to the first hour of the concert -- also available on YouTube.

I would have loved to have been present at Carnegie Hall. Though I was slightly skeptical about the endeavor on a blog post I wrote about it a few months ago, I was basically extremely excited about the way in which technology was being deployed to bring people from different parts of the world together to make music -- and classical, rather than pop, music at that.

I absolutely respect Sandow and Anne Midgette of the Washington Post's reservations about the musicianship of the concert. It's impossible to give a nuanced performance when you've got two days to rehearse a ton of music with a group of players of varying backgrounds and abilities. I also understand the issues that some critics voiced concerning the populist approach to programming, whereby the orchestra played crowd-pleasing, flashy excerpts from many pieces rather than entire works.

But I personally feel like the final concert wasn't really the point of the project at all. While it created focus and a needed ultimate goal, it seems to me to me more symbolic in value than anything else. So what if the group didn't sound like the New York Philharmonic or the Netherlands Royal Concertgebouw? The fact is that Google and its collaborators managed to leverage the power of online collaboration to create a truly international orchestra of commendable talent considering the "speed dating" circumstances under which the group was pulled together. For this, the project deserves high praise.

OK, so maybe there were too many lasers and cheerleadery self-congratulatory video commentaries at the event itself. These may well have detracted from the music for some people and inflated the experience beyond what it should have been inflated from a musical perspective. But on the whole, the organizers and musicians deserve to give themselves a great big pat on the back for pulling off an era-defining stunt and putting classical music into the limelight where it belongs.

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