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Insider’s View of YouTube Symphony Orchestra

Few, from players, audience, and critics alike have been able to resist the energy and enthusiasm surrounding the YouTube Symphony Orchestra concert on April 15th at Carnegie Hall. ConcertoNet has asked Jim Moffat, horn player, to describe what his experience has been from start to finish as a participant to this unique and special initiative.

Jim Moffat

An Insider’s View of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, by Jim Moffat

"My daughter’s camera is running out of batteries. Just one more take and I will nail this damn first movement of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 2 for good. Flies done up? The phone rings. Fluffed the first note. Start again. Things are going well until minute four. My dining room has become a makeshift recording studio. For luck, I am wearing my late Dad’s jumper, one size too large. This is impossible, trying to pitch everything perfectly, unaccompanied, for 4 minutes and 50 seconds. If this were golf, it would be like trying to hit 18 holes against Tiger Woods. You might get lucky, but sooner or later fate and lack of the perfect talent deliver a bogey. I feel Salieri’s pain.

What became a near obsession began innocuously enough. As a consultant in sales and marketing to technology companies, I am relatively wide open to the latest internet developments. Whether it was a twitter or a blog, something alerted me in early December to the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, a project cooked up by YouTube and Google to assemble an orchestra entirely out of online auditions. Contestants could be from anywhere and all they had to do was submit two audition videos, one of a standard repertoire piece and another playing a part in a short work written by Oscar winning composer, Tan Dun, for YouTube, both unaccompanied. The lure was an all expenses paid trip to New York to play live in Carnegie Hall. YouTube, bought by Google in 2006, was a viral phenomenon that I had followed closely – though I had never made a video myself. The challenge of self-recording tempted me to participate in this contest. I assured my wife that, with the hundreds of capable horn students in conservatoires, there was no chance an old codger like me would be successful. Though as a much younger man I had been a professional player, those days were long ago. My YouTube account name, what they call a channel, was something I had set up before I learnt of this contest, and is based upon the published thesis of my undergraduate degree, the clam Macoma balthica. In hindsight 'balthica' wasn’t the best choice. A 'clam' is a term used by brass players in America for a fluffed note.

Coming up to the end of January deadline for submissions, entries started to pour in, including 58 other horn players and another 3,000 videos of orchestral musicians from 200 countries. Over the next two weeks, panels of professional players winnowed those down to 200 finalists including 9 horn players. Google PR emailed to me, writing, “Congratulations on getting through to the public vote stage for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra!” and asking if I would mind talking to the media. That was the first indication that I might have a chance. The next stage involved a nail biting, week-long, Roman style, thumbs up/thumbs down vote. It was then that I called upon my LinkedIn network. Having worked for a number of years with Lotus and IBM, my professional network is larger than most people’s, though my Facebook network is less than half the size of the average student. In the end, the vote may not have mattered, as the final say of which 96 musicians would make up the orchestra lay with its principal conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas. A week after the voting closed, a video production company emailed me asking if I would be willing to be filmed over the next few days as part of a documentary. On a Saturday, a two man crew set up in our dining room and interviewed me. When they asked for my phone to be handy, I knew something was afoot, yet when I got the call from Google saying that I had made the grade, it was still a delightful and welcome affirmation. All that was caught on camera, as well as the moment I told my wife, and the moment I told my mates in the Kensington Symphony Orchestra over a pub lunch. It was the first taste of what was to be the most recorded event in the history of classical music.

Some cynics called this a gimmick. To be sure, Google, essentially an advertising company, wanted to shift YouTube’s appeal towards a demographic more likely to attract advertisers. Yet it was no more a gimmick than the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini, or for that matter any other corporate sponsorship of the arts. Some commentators called it a publicity stunt. YouTube hardly needs to spend a single penny to buy more publicity. This venture had genuine news attraction. Perhaps the established critics are just resistant to change, in denial that classical music audiences have been on the wane for a couple of decades. This art form needs a new way to touch audiences and a new way to package product. At the risk of leaving itself wide open to criticism for aesthetic and execution reasons, Google broke new ground on a number of fronts. For those things, it may have marked classical music’s turning point. It was the first time any performing arts organization had auditioned members on this scale solely online. It was the first time that an orchestra had distributed all parts to the music via a secure site as pdf’s. In the past, music publishers had prevented such copying. It was the first time that tutorials on this scale, kindly provided by the London Symphony Orchestra, had been made available to those auditioning. It was the first time a mashup, an aggregation of videos to create a performance, in this case Tan Dun’s Eroica, had ever been attempted on this scale. It was the first time I know of that an indoor concert had visual effects that were so pervasive, including close-ups of performers. And it was the first time I have been to an indoor classical concert where the audience was encouraged to photograph and video.

The gathering in New York was always going to be a frantic, imperfect event. The journey had been enough – the destination almost inconsequential, but in the end, the summit was euphoric for the participants and most of the concert goers. Knowing he had a world stage and eager to tempt a new audience with samplings from the rich and growing library of classical music, Michael Tilson Thomas assembled a challenging pops program with a difference by including Gabrielli, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Mason Bates along with more familiar Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. It was challenging for the audience and even more challenging for a large group of musicians who had never played before. The event began with a reception the night before rehearsals were due to begin. During the run up to New York, winners had been asked to post short autobiographical videos on YouTube. Having viewed all of them, we felt as though we already knew one another. That was the strangest aspect of the gathering. I have never met so many people for the first time that I felt I already knew. Oddly enough, in real life, they look shorter. One can work for years with a colleague and not learn the details we fellow musicians already knew about each other. That helped build bonds quickly. The scale of those video introductions, an attempt to prepare a cohesive virtual team, was another first, a first for any virtual team of that size – not just one in the arts.

The project was the brainchild of Tim Lee, a product manager at Google now completing his MBA at Stanford. Tim, who was based in London, phoned Chaz Jenkins of LSO Live who immediately understood the idea and wanted to participate.Tim contacted Tan Dun who also wanted on board. With Tim off to study, the baton was handed to Ed Sanders, another Google product manager whose baby this has been for the past year. To the assembled crowd of YouTube winners in New York, Ed welcomed everyone to the world of 3D and explained the genesis and original aim of the project – to give everyone the chance to play at Carnegie Hall. Michael Tilson Thomas spoke of the wonderful challenge that lay before us over the next three days and Tan Dun told us the story of his road to Carnegie Hall. He spoke about re-inventing oneself. When he arrived at Immigration in New York, he told the officer that he was there to study violin and to play in Carnegie Hall. He ended up doing a doctorate in composition at Columbia University. As a student, he used to busk in Greenwich Village, competing with Paul, another violinist, for the best spot, the one outside the Chemical Bank. Five or six years later when his composition was being played in Carnegie Hall, Tan Dun revisited his old haunts, and found Paul, still playing his violin outside the Chemical Bank, still trying to play better, still waiting for his big break. "How are you Tan? I haven’t seen you in a long time. Where have you been?" asked Paul. “I’m playing at Carnegie Hall,” replied Tan Dun. “Front or back?” asked Paul. Tan Dun proudly replied “Inside!” Tan Dun sees YouTube as a re-invention of how we interact with music.

At a quarter past five the following morning, I was in a cab heading for ABC’s studios in Times Square. Along with five other musicians, I was booked to play live on Good Morning America. This was no ordinary gaggle of gigging guys. To help gel the orchestra more quickly and create the basis of a longer term online pedagogical venture, MTT had recruited a dozen mentors from the world’s top orchestras. Three of them were in our brass ensemble of six: Ted Atktiz, former principal percussionist with the Chicago Symphony who now leads the rock band, NYCO; Ian Bousfield, solo trombone in the Vienna Philharmonic; and Rolf Smedvig, the first trumpet and leader of the Empire Brass. Representing the winning YouTubers were Andy Chester a graduate on tuba, Arnaud Geffray a trumpeter with L'Orchestre national de Lyon and me on horn. There is nothing like an early morning live broadcast on national television on the world’s most difficult instrument playing with world class musicians to wake up the senses. Surviving that one made the rest of the week seem like a breeze.

The breeze was more like a whirlwind. After dashing between different rehearsal rooms at Julliard, we had to listen incredibly closely to develop any cohesion. First we had to agree on where “Now” was in relation to MTT’s beat. And we had to settle on a pitch – 442. Finally, we had to gravitate towards styles appropriate to the wildly diverse repertoire on our plates. For example, Ian Bousfield over the course of the rehearsals managed to impose the pointed Viennese rhythm in the brass in the Ride of the Valkyries in contrast to the woolly style one usually hears in American orchestras. Though MTT tried to get us to move our bodies more, by the time of the performance we were a long way off the Venezuelan school. Still, we looked slightly more animated than many pro bands. Perhaps it was partly due to first rehearsal jitters, but to me, the remarkable thing about the experiment was how far the group progressed from Monday morning to the dress rehearsal two days later. The strings in the Villa Lobos by the end moved and grooved as one section, playing with gusto.

Carnegie Hall, our ultimate prize, was it the finest stage in the world? This historic landmark is certainly a large house, with the balconies much further back than in modern halls. Seeing such a venue packed to the rafters and hearing the large audience cheer would touch the hearts of any performer. The acoustic may be superb for the concert goers, but I felt as though I was playing in a band shell, with the strings, outside that shell, not projecting back. One of the happy consequences of the project is that tonight I am playing the Tan Dun Eroica, with Tan Dun once again conducting, with the LSO at the Barbican along with the YouTube Symphony timpanist, Owain Williams. For the player, the backwards projection of the strings in the Barbican is rewarding. The same thing applies to Berlin’s Philharmonie. Both allow for tighter ensemble playing.

And the orchestra, was it any good? Given the constraints, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t up to most pro standards of ensemble playing, nor could it have been. It takes time for a team to function as a unit. It takes plenty of experience in performance under varied conditions that online auditions cannot reveal. With the world’s press crawling all over this event, expectations amongst non-musicians were unrealistically high. The live Carnegie Hall event was never going to stand up to critical forensic musical scrutiny, but it did exactly do what it set out to and that was to elevate the YouTube brand. On the way, it unlocked a world of serious music making to a wider audience. Perhaps some of those people will be inspired to take up an instrument, or encourage or at least tolerate their sons’ and daughters’ first steps in making music. And maybe some hardened professionals will now look on the medium a little differently, as a path for serious pedagogy and spread their skills to eager students otherwise hindered by distance.

As evidence, I offer the recent words of one of my YouTube Symphony colleagues, David France:

'As a proud member of the YouTube Symphony, it has been quite intriguing reading all the buzz surrounding this great event. What I've found most fascinating is that I have yet in the major publications to read anything by the "new audience" that this endeavour has aimed to reach. All the voices chiming in are old voices of the establishment. No one has ever even imagined that maybe the YouTube Symphony doesn't exist for the established classical lovers but for a new audience that desires to have their taste buds enlivened by a genre of music that they have not taken the time to be exposed to. What I do know is that on the small island of Bermuda, the YouTube Symphony has been a huge HIT! The Premier of the country has decided to come to a classical concert this Friday in which I will be performing. People everywhere on the island are checking out my Brahms Symphony excerpt. Many families took time off their jobs and took their children out of school and flew to New York to see the concert while the papers and television shows continue to highlight and praise its success. So, in a small sense, on a small island, classical music has a new place in the hearts of the people. Also, on my own YouTube channel "Augustusdavid" since beginning my own journey from audition to finals to winning, I have received emails literally everyday about how people are being inspired to take up the violin or some other instrument they have only flirted with. While in New York I received emails from people in Bermuda who wanted to start violin lessons with me when I returned. So, while the established voices have a real and valid word for us on the success of the YTSO, the real voices have yet to be heard and the real success presently lies in the hopes and dreams of the tens of thousands influenced by this endeavour.'

The project broke a lot of new ground – too much to digest in a single view. It is much too early to tell which of its firsts were ephemeral and which will stick. As Michael Tilson Thomas and Tan Dun put it – this is only the beginning. YouTube is the new medium not just for amusing clips, but for serious learning, serious collaboration and team building. That cannot be a bad thing."

Editor's note:

Jim Moffat, has been a horn player from the age of 13. After graduating with degrees in science and business and working in technology marketing in Canada, he pursued his musical hobby and played several years with the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg, Germany. Returning to Canada and the networking technology business, he freelanced in Toronto on the side. In 1989 he moved to London, the horn capital of world, where he plays regularly. After 12 years with Lotus and IBM in marketing, he set up his own sales and marketing consultancy in 2004, helping technology companies develop their routes to market and increase customer satisfaction.

Antoine Leboyer



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