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The Passions of St. Michael

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/15/2009 -  
Johannes Brahms: Allegro giocoso from Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op 98
Lou Harrison: Music from Canticle No. 33
Antonín Dvorák: Music from Serenade in D Minor, Op.44
Giovanni Gabrielli: Canzon septimi toni No. 2
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sarabande from Suite No. 1 in G major for Cello solo, BWV 1007
Heitor Villa-Lobos; Bachianas brasileiras No. 9
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Valse from Two Pieces for Piano, Six Hands
Richard Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre
Tan Dun: Internet Symphony No. 1 “Eroica” (World Premiere)
Sergei Prokofiev: Scherzo from Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Piano, Op 16
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumblebee (arranged by Gyrorgy Cziffra)
Claude Debussy: Nuages from Nocturnes
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Finale from Concerto No. 5 for Violin in A Major, K. 219
Benjamin Britten: Squirrels, arranged for violins
John Cage: Aria with Renga
Mason Bates: Warehouse Medicine, from B-Sides
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Finale from Symphony No. 4
Hector Berlioz: Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust

Measha Brueggergosman (Soprano), Gil Shaham (Violin), Joshua Roman (Cello), Yuja Wang (Piano), Anna Larsen, Charlie Liu, Derek Wang (Piano students from Lang Lang International Foundation), Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang (Video appearances), Tan Dun (Conductor)
YouTube Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (Artistic Advisor and Conductor)
Bill Williams (Artistic Coordinator), 21C Media Group, Mason Bates (Composer and DJ), YouTube, Museworks Hong Kong, Amore Pacific, Samsung (Production and sponsors)

Michael Tilson Thomas (© Stefan Cohen)

”How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? “
“Download, download, download!”

21st Century Joke

Benjamin Britten once suggested that music critics define their concerts before describing them, so here goes. Many months ago, 3,000 musicians from 70 countries around the world auditioned via the video sharing site, YouTube to perform in the first international orchestra chosen on line. After several elimination stages, a full orchestra of almost 100 players representing 30 countries was formed, brought to New York by YouTube and others, and the noted conductor Michael Tilson Thomas—along with professional mentors for each group—set to work for a concert that would feature international soloists.

That definition of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra gives absolutely no indication of the three-hour concert presented last night. The 18 works chosen represented 13 different countries, the styles ran the gamut from 17th Century antiphonal brass to aleatory music by John Cage to a pair of world premieres.

Nor does that describe the atmosphere of this concert. For one thing, the audience was noticeably younger, vocally more enthusiastic (though hardly voluble), and video cameras were permitted. Superficially, it was MTV style, with graphics, frequent videos on a large screen, incredible artwork which embraced all of Carnegie Hall from the topmost ceiling to the balconies to the stage itself. But MTV signifies sets of graphics which are imaginative in themselves. In this case, the visual “accompaniment” was not only original but actually realistically augmented what was played by the orchestra and the soloists.

The program was obviously inspired by the ever-younger Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas. Only one work, the Wagner Ride would have been familiar to all (though the shadowy graphics on the ceiling of two male horsemen was not exactly correct). Mr. Thomas, though, was not afraid to leap from period to period with electrifying ease (how the hell did they get rid of that piano so quickly?) and make each work, whether familiar or not, actually interesting.

He did it sometimes with off-the-cuff remarks. And the friendly Mr. Thomas, when explaining the “passion” of this music, was obviously sincere. The short pauses between music showed videos of several performers in their own countries. Or a whole kaleidoscope of auditioning players rolled from the stage up to the ceiling and through the entire Isaac Stern Auditorium.

Even more exciting were those graphics, each so unique and so different that they brought out an entirely new function of the music. For Debussy’s Clouds, three giant screens on stage varied images of clouds with the soloists playing. For Mozart’s “Turkish” concerto, not only were the original manuscripts shown behind Mr. Shahan, but the cupola of Carnegie Hall became a Baroque ceiling.

Some moments worked more effectively than others.The gossamer threads behind the Villa-Lobos were pretty but not terribly edifying. (though the strings were gorgeous in this gorgeous piece). Young Joshua Roman, introduced by video images of Yo-Yo Ma, played a Bach Sarabande in front of a screen picturing ever-changing beautiful visages of classical painting, from Mona Lisa to Rubens to Picasso. The morphing became a fantastic tour de face (sic), but somehow dwarfed Mr. Roman’s fine playing.

Then we had the simple backgrounds. Lou Harrison’s Canticle used an eclectic group of Asian instruments and the soloists were videoed on the background screen. Tan Dun wrote, introduced and conducted an Eroica movement for the “young heroes” playing. No graphics were needed. It was typical Tan Dun, with clanging, gonging, clashing, a few brass choirs, some quotes from Beethoven and—the best part—a series of typical faux-endings Beethoven style. Nor were graphics needed when Mr. Thomas turned to the audience, raised his arms and conducted two brass choirs high up on either side of the first balcony in Gabrieli.

Ah, yes, I longed for the atmosphere of St. Marks, instead of the arms of St. Michael, but it was still a glorious performance.

Two soloists stood out over the three-hour concert. Yuja Wang hammered a Prokofiev scherzo from the 2nd Piano Concerto, but then, in a quick encore (and graphics of millions of notes slithering like a python over the ceiling), she played Gyorgy Czzifra’s arrangement of Flight of the Bumblebee. She didn’t play it at the speed of light—she made the speed of light seem to be as slow at the proverbial tortoise. That we could see her fingers and face on the video screen made it delightful. But the pacing was close to impossible. (Hopefully, she will show her art in a recital here soon.)

It would be superfluous to say that the Canadian Measha Brueggergosman is the most fantastic singer in the world today. I cannot think of anything she cannot do—and in John Cage’s Aria she did it all. From the usual breaths and swoops of the Cage dicta to sudden transformations into bel canto and sounds never heard before, along with an improvised orchestra, did for voice what Ms. Wang had done for fingers.

But now we come to the YouTube Symphony Orchestra itself. Mr. Thomas very wisely limited the ensemble to only four grandiose concert pieces, and these—the Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Tan Dun and Brahms—were conducted with such energy that there was little room for contour or actual judgment. Mr. Thomas is the model of the energetic conductor, and the orchestra reacted to him well, playing with velocity, accuracy (frankly, I’ve heard the NY Phil make more technical mistakes than YouTube) and color. I have the feeling that this would not be the group to play a Mahler adagio or a Mozart 40th with eternal remembrance. But that wasn’t the point. They played as one ensemble in what was given them.

Most of the pieces were either emphasizing a consort (the strings for the Villa-Lobos, the brass for Gabrieli, percussion for the Harrison and Tan Dun) or accompanying a world-class soloist. And in this, they succeeded beyond any criticism.

In a way, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra is simply a 21st Century version of the Asian Youth Orchestra or the European Youth Orchestra, which also uses first-class soloists and conductors to show off their cosmopolitan players. But YouTube actually circumnavigated the globe (though no African or Middle East players were in the orchestra). Even more important, the ensemble had—or has—the funds to make the concert into a cerebral party. Not with balloons the games and songs. But with the most fascinating art, electronic legerdemain, endless talent, and the total transformed architecture of the world’s most distinguished concert hall.

The YouTube symphony orchestra’s website

Harry Rolnick



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