Online Orchestra

The YouTube Symphony is the flash mob of orchestras: word is spread via social networking, musicians submit videos for the online auditions, the group comes together for a single performance, and then disbands. As the orchestra prepares for its Carnegie Hall debut on April 15, Symphony editor Ian VanderMeulen reports from behind the scenes.

Day One: Monday, April 13, 2009
The YouTube Symphony Orchestra’s First Rehearsal

The first impression of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra is, fittingly, the sound. Before I even arrive in rehearsal room 309 at The Juilliard School I can hear the strains of Tan Dun’s Internet Symphony No. 1, “Eroica,” wafting into the hallway. Once I’m inside, the hyped-up publicity the occasion has attracted is evidenced by the army of camera crews and other media personnel scattered around the room. Some roam about with small portable camcorders, thrusting their boom mics into the reverberant air above the orchestra. Others have set up tripods in the back of the orchestra to get the best view of Tan Dun on the podium, and later, Michael Tilson Thomas. “Where’s our surgeon?” I hear one journalist ask her camera-toting colleague, referring to one of the many skilled amateurs who has made the cut as one of the 96 musicians in the orchestra.

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra, a collaboration among YouTube, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Carnegie Hall, touts itself as the first such ensemble to be assembled through online auditions. In December, the project invited musicians—professional and amateur, young and old—to audition by posting videos of themselves on YouTube. A professional panel selected 200 finalists from the more than 3,000 videos submitted, and YouTube viewers chose the 96 musicians for the actual orchestra. Project organizers state that some 70 countries and territories are represented by the orchestra’s members. The project has paid the musicians’ travel expenses to New York City for a three-day classical music summit, culminating with the orchestra’s performance on Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall.

But more than the orchestra’s international makeup, one is struck by the age of the musicians. With a few exceptions scattered throughout the ensemble, the musicians all appear to be under 30. If it weren’t for the camera crews and the YouTube posters, the experience wouldn’t have been much different from visiting a rehearsal of Juilliard’s own orchestra.

When Tan Dun finishes rehearsing his piece, Tilson Thomas takes the podium to rehearse a sneak peak of Mason Bates’s The B-Sides, a work that Tilson Thomas will premiere in full with the San Francisco Symphony in May. Tilson Thomas introduces Bates, who in his slight drawl explains that, given the electronic elements in the piece, he’ll need input from Tilson Thomas and the orchestra members on volume levels. Jessica Lustig of 21C Media, a consultant for the YouTube Symphony project, is telling a young CBS reporter about Bates. Bates, Lustig explains, is one of the hottest young composers on the scene these days, and moonlights as a club DJ. This elicits a wide-eyed smile from the young journalist. What a score for the orchestra community—this budding member of the mainstream media may never report on Mason Bates again, but her perception of the orchestra world has undoubtedly been changed. Music for stuffy intellectuals and wealthy retirees only? I think not.

Bates’s secondary occupation as a DJ—or is it in fact his primary occupation?— is apparent from the opening notes of his piece, a throbbing dance groove that sets the tone. The orchestration shifts between pulsing sixteenth notes in the strings and volume swells in the brass. Clearly tonal but easily and naturally blurring the lines between minimalism and neo-Romanticism, much of Bates’s work would make a very effective score for the right film. It’s no surprise that he seems to be on the cutting edge these days, attracting a younger crowd to orchestra halls around the country.

But the orchestra seems to be having trouble. Many of the sixteenth-note syncopations—particularly in the brass and strings—are not hanging together, and Tilson Thomas quickly zeroes in on a few problematic sections for rehearsal. Somehow I’m surprised by the rhythmic issues. I wonder: Wouldn’t the difficulties of fusing house rhythms with orchestral playing be much more evident in an ensemble of older, tenured musicians used to playing standard repertoires than among the young, hip, obviously tech-savvy musicians the YouTube Symphony Project has attracted? Or is it not so much an issue of age and genre as simply a challenge that’s to be expected when a crack band plays brand-new music never before heard? Either way, I’ll be curious to see how the group progresses from today to the Wednesday-night concert at Carnegie Hall.

I move from the front doorway of the rehearsal room to the back of the orchestra to get a better view of Bates and suddenly realize how busy he is. At the front of the orchestra, the pulsing sounds had fooled me into thinking he was simply starting a loop on his drum machine and tweaking levels, but in fact his part is not unlike that of a percussionist who must switch between multiple instruments. Bates constantly shifts from laptop to mixer to sequencer, where he often taps out sixteenth-note polyrhythms on the rubber keypads. Tilson Thomas has to stop several times to check notes with Bates—not uncommon when rehearsing a new work.

Having witnessed the orchestra in rehearsal, I’ll be curious to hear what Tilson Thomas, Bates, and Tan Dun—not to mention the spokespeople for YouTube and Google—have to say about the project at tomorrow’s press conference. And I wonder, too, how the first day with everyone in the same room may have changed their perspective on the project. Hope to find out tomorrow—stay tuned!