Online Orchestra Day 3

Day Three: Wednesday, April 15, 2009
YouTube Symphony Orchestra Dress Rehearsal, Carnegie Hall

The moment has arrived. Throughout the entire YouTube Symphony process, the project has been pitched as a rethinking of that well-known question: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” This morning’s dress rehearsal in Carnegie’s fabled Stern Auditorium thus in many ways marks the end of that journey for these 96 musicians. This group has yet to perform here in front of the public, of course, but they’ve finally made it to Carnegie Hall. Clive Gillinson, Carnegie’s executive director, welcomes the musicians by highlighting the venue’s history and prestige.

I take a seat on the left hand side of the auditorium in order to get the best view of Michael Tilson Thomas. I’m excited to get a sneak peak of tonight’s public performance but slightly frustrated that I’ve been told not to take photos, especially given that I’ve come better-equipped today. I feel tempted to break the rules as the visual elements of the program are made clear. As Michael Tilson Thomas rehearses his welcome speech—again reinforcing the How-do-you-get-to-Carnegie-Hall theme—audition videos of the orchestra’s musicians are projected on the walls and ceiling of the hall. Listening to his  soothing tone of voice and watching the images float towards the back across the dome of the Carnegie ceiling feels almost like taking a virtual trip through outer space at the planetarium. “Lie back and enjoy your trip through the classical music cosmos” seems to be the mood.

We’re only exploring one planet today, however; I’m reminded of this by a map of the Earth projected on the wall. The image quickly zooms in on the heart of Europe and announces our destination with the text “Vienna, 1885,” followed by “Johannes Brahms” and a portrait of the composer. Tilson Thomas leads the orchestra into the Allegro giocoso from the Fourth Symphony. During the run-through, the projections feature close-up video feeds of different sections of the orchestra, a nice touch for drawing in the audience. The playing sounds inspired.

I’m not sure the hall is so suited to some of the smaller-ensemble pieces on the program, however. During a reading of Californian Lou Harrison’s Music from Canticle No. 3 for percussion ensemble, the sound seems to get lost in the hall, appearing thin and faraway. (Part of this observation may have been based on expectation—Tilson Thomas had prefaced the work by telling musicians sitting near the percussion that they might want to wear earplugs during this work.) The pitch of the one non-percussion instrument, a football-shaped flute called the Ocarina, also sounds very flat compared to the percussion. But the mixed-meter rhythm is precise and conductor Edwin Outwater, also music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra, is clearly very comfortable with this music.

Other engaging multimedia elements include video miniatures of landscapes set to audio of different YouTube Symphony musicians introducing themselves. One particularly striking vignette features remarks from a professional poker player, who compares that occupation to his cello-playing, noting that both require extensive “practice and cool emotion.” But in poker, he observes, the end product is simply the money that’s made. “Music,” he says, “allows me to feel like a productive member of society.”

But the smorgasbord of multimedia offerings is clearly creating problems at this rehearsal. The world-map videos do not always appear at the right time, and some of the musician-introduction montages lack the accompanying audio. The spotlight used for Dvorak’s Serenade in D minor appears late and in the wrong place. Expressing the time pressure that he’d joked about so many times in yesterday’s press conference, Tilson Thomas seems impatient with today’s technical hiccups. But his ability to press on with the music is admirable. Whether he is simply too impatient to deal with these technical issues at this point or is choosing to trust that the crew will do its job come this evening, it seems to be the necessary choice given the time constraints.

Some of the orchestra’s less-experienced musicians may not be so well equipped to deal with the challenge. A run-through of Gabrieli’s Canzon septimi toni No. 2, featuring two small brass ensembles on opposing balconies, comes off relatively without a hitch. But about halfway in, one of the lead trumpet players—one of the ensemble’s amateur musicians, based on his apparent age—seems to be having trouble, his sound deteriorating and some of the notes not speaking clearly. As a trumpet player myself, I register these as signs of endurance problems, and it occurs to me that, along with the orchestra’s other amateurs, he may not be accustomed to such a high concentration of rehearsal time.

I leave just before the midway point with several questions still unanswered. Have YouTube Symphony Project organizers bitten off more multimedia than they can chew? Will these elements of the program be ironed out before tonight? There also seemed to be a lot of dead time in between works, both due to technical issues and the logistics of stage setup. If this doesn’t change before tonight, will the audience—probably one with less classical music experience than is usual at Carnegie—stay entertained and engaged? In the end, the success of this project will in part be subjective, dependent on the projected purpose of this endeavor. But either way, it promises to be unlike any other orchestral performance in Carnegie’s history. I’m looking forward to it.