Friday, April 17, 2009

Harrisburg Symphony Musician Goes to the YouTube Symphony

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? In addition to "practice, practice, practice" - there's now "up-load, up-load, up-load."

One of the 96 players in the YouTube Symphony was Devin Howell, the assistant principal bass player of the Harrisburg Symphony and a recent new member of his hometown orchestra. You can read my posts over at Thoughts on a Train about his winning and his description of the whole process of applying for it - and watch one of his audition up-loads - and then winning the audition!

This past week, they all gathered - from more than 30 countries around the world - in New York City, had rehearsals and master classes at the Juilliard School of Music before giving the concert at the legendary Carnegie Hall. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, in introducing the eclectic concert, described it as a combination "classical music summit conference, scout jamboree with an element of speed dating thrown in..."

Here's Devin with his fellow bass players in a photo he'd up-loaded to Facebook this morning which he captioned "without a doubt, the greatest bass section to grace this stage... on this particular day... this particular hour. CARNEGIE HALL, NY." He's off to play in the Allentown Symphony for the weekend, so we'll catch up after he gets back.

Considering all the musicians were chosen by up-loading video clips of their playing as part of the audition process, I was hoping the concert would be broadcast live through YouTube. Not so. But here IS the concert (or at least the first half, so far) after-the-fact - which was posted (where else?) on YouTube!
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You can also read reviews of the concert - from the Washington Post's Anne Midgette (who didn't really like it) and from the New York Times' Anthony Tommasini (who did).

The problems with the performance stem more from putting together a diverse program like this with so many musicians from so many backgrounds who've never played together before and doing it all in three days. But the enthusiasm of the players can be seen in the video as well as heard in the music and for a first-time experience like this, all the hoopla aside, it's a wonderful event and a great start. Not to mention, perhaps, a first-time classical music concert experience for lots of listeners!

While it's too early to tell what the long-range impact may be, consider this: wouldn't it be cool to have the performance entirely on-line, using the Internet as an alternative performance space to the standard concert hall? To have the conductor in front of a camera being up-loaded to the musicians all around the world and all of them broadcasting at the same time?

Oh yeah, that means some musicians will be playing at 5am, not much you can do about that... And though the virtual interaction might not be as much fun as the live social opportunity of attending "symphony camp," it's still an amazing opportunity to bring so many musicians together for a performance.

However, at the moment internet technology wouldn't really be able to do it quite so smoothly as everybody playing together on one stage. Trying to follow a video of the conductor on your computer could be disastrous - one blip and everybody's off! Or "my computer just froze" and there goes the big flute solo... And of course, how can a single musician in a living room adjust to the sound and ensemble of the other players in his section or how can she fit her phrasing into the rest of the orchestra's? A violinist needs to watch the concertmaster and then there's that inexplicable mental interaction that musicians share. Those are things that the technology - as amazing as it is - can't do (*yet*). But who knows where it will be in the future?

When I saw my first live broadcast on-line - a few years ago when (I think) La Scala broadcast a live performance of Verdi's Aida on the internet - I thought "who wants to watch something as vast as an opera like Aida on a 2-inch square screen on a computer monitor?" It kept starting and stopping, then going dark. I tried watching the Van Cliburn Competition which was also trying live internet broadcasting and had similar problems.

But then I remembered, in this age of HD Television, how my parents had described watching their first TV broadcasts back in the '40s with this big box of a thing in a friend's living room and they all gathered around to watch this grainy black-and-white image on a tiny litte screen and thought it was absolutely amazing. Of course, other than movie theaters, there had been nothing to compare it to and this you can watch in your own home. Since then, we've gotten used to bigger and bigger screens and more than just adding color to it. High Definition is only the latest advancement.

While we now can watch movies on cell-phones and listen to symphonies on iPods with tiny little ear-buds, perhaps the cycle of technology is ripe for internet broadcasting in the future. Besides, the idea of a human walking on the moon had only been the stuff of dreams and comic books until it actually happened.

Well, I'll be posting more about the YouTube Symphony in the nearer future - but meanwhile, I want to echo the New York Times' critic who ended his review by saying at least when somebody got the idea to do this, they decided to put together a symphony orchestra, not a basketball team.

- Dr. Dick

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