Friday, April 17, 2009

Much ado about YouTube

Oh man, Greg Sandow is really beating himself up over having to admit that the YouTube Symphony stunt concert thing didn't actually result in terribly impressive music making:
So here's what I heard. (I'd first thought, when I contemplated writing this, that I'd be kind, and not go into detail, because I loved the musicians so much. But given the hype, I''d rather be honest.) Right at the start, when the orchestra began with the third movement of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, there were details unattended to. Small notes were obscured. And the strings were underpowered, compared to the rest of the orchestra...
Does he really feel the need to agonize over sparing the performers' feelings? The feelings of a pickup orchestra of promising amateurs given 3 days rehearsal? More to the point, is it even worth critiquing such a thing as a legitimate concert? This was a cool marketing gimmick by YouTube. It should get a fluff piece, not a legitimate review. I mean, the only way you can be really disappointed about this is if you shared a little bit in the Internets triumphalism which YouTube marketing flacks must surely have been feeling (and who would blame them for such things? that's their job). It's hard not to see this in the context of Sandow's trademark reflex of short changing the traditions of classical music. Building and rehearsing an orchestra of less than professional musicians is a labor intensive business that won't just disappear if you sprinkle some internets on it. So getting disappointed when this is shown to not even be on the same footing of a run of the mill university orchestra is just...kind of bizarre.

This is only part of his issue with the concert though. Perhaps more than the poor playing, it is the excessive praise for the whole endeavor, which is, understandably, part and parcel of a marketing event put on by a private Internet company.
But as things were, the actual playing got a little lost in the sea of self-congratulation. (None of which, I want to stress as strongly as I can, was the musicians' fault. Nor did they participate in it, though the use that was made of their videos helped create the problem.) And there was something very sad in this. To overpraise things, to make them seem better than they are -- and to do this so relentlessly -- degrades standards, just a little.
Now, its a wee bit rich to hear a man who regularly exhorts orchestras to just play louder when they aren't reaching their audience talking about degrading standards. But snark aside, I don't think we should really be worried about the YouTube orchestra. Sandow brings up Andrea Bocelli in comments as an example of the sort of standards creep the YouTube orchestra could lead to. But no one is talking about the YouTube orchestra trying to steal the NYPhil's market share. It was a onetime gimmick.

And you know what? While it is mildly annoying that some people don't properly categorize crossover classical pop stuff for what it is, and it is double annoying when you have to sift through it in the dwindling classical section, Andrea Bocelli is hardly degrading the standards of the opera world. He's in his own crossover classical pop element, and while there's money to be made by blurring the edge a little bit, there's no army of Bocelli's ready to displace the Met roster.

Thinking that Bocelli somehow impacts the taste of the real opera world is troubling in a different way though: because some people start to think that real opera should be able to garner the same CD sales and marketing cachet that the crossover pop world is able to command when that's just never going to be the case, and shouldn't be our goal. Bocelli's 3-minute doses of popera aren't some kind of gateway drug to buying four hour opera sets. Let the Bocelli fans be.

All of which is to say, by confusing what the lines are, Sandow isn't able to appreciate the real import of this marketing stunt, which represents something really powerful and great for classical music. Not some masterplan to get people interested through a flawed one-shot orchestra gimmick, but because it calls attention to the powerful role YouTube and other Internet outlets are playing in cementing an international community of classical music enthusiasts.

Clearly, YouTube has been a powerful force for allowing fans to experience footage of historical performers that is often only available on overpriced DVDs or fleeting PBS specials. More importantly, it allows fans to watch videos of current top artists...YouTube is a revelation for the opera community of course, which can build hype around current singers in a way impossible before. But beyond this, being able to watch great amateur, semi-professional, and up and coming professional musicians is a remarkable way to build enthusiasm around concerts at the local level, and around artists who often don't have the luxury of publicity outlets that their pop colleagues do (local rock radio stations, a viral homemade CD culture, lots of bars to play in).

YouTube clearly recognizes that this is a legitimate lofty purpose for it to emphasize, and has chosen to celebrate that with a high profile "in reality" event, perhaps the greatest recognition a virtual enterprise can give. So who cares who the thing turned out?


Lisa Hirsch said...

This is the best and smartest commentary I've seen about the YouTube Symphony concert the other day. Tommasini got the tone of his review right, as well; it's light, respectful, and not too hard on the performers.

Anonymous said...

and andrea is coming to poland! :D

koncert andrea bocelli