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Hashing over the YouTube Symphony

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The YouTube Symphony, a herd of talented musicians rounded up on YouTube starting last December, made its debut Wednesday at Carnegie Hall. Conducted by former Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra music director Michael Tilson Thomas, the intrepid band played music including the vivacious last movement of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, the March from Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust," and a new "Eroica" Symphony by the contemporary composer Tan Dun.

You can read about it in The Buffalo News here.

People are buzzing about it and not all of the buzz is favorable. Greg Sandow, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, dissects the concert here. His point seems to be that the orchestra did not play all that well and any substance, in any case, was drowned out by all the hype. The New York Times looked more on the bright side. You can read about a YouTube Symphony rehearsal on the paper's blog (also called Artsbeat, like ours). And the paper's music critic, Anthony Tommasini, reviews the concert here. He is fairly favorable though he does write that he wishes the concert had been more substantive and less gimmicky. As you can tell from the picture above, it was full of high-tech visuals.

You can watch the performances starting today on YouTube. I guess it was quite the event, including music played not only by the hastily assembled and rehearsed orchestra, but also by guest stars including violinist Gil Shaham, who will be playing at the BPO's season-opener in September, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

I have not finished watching the concert yet. But I will say this: I do not even think I have to. They would have to be really bad for me NOT to hail this whole thing as good news.

Sure, there's a lot I too could criticize. I personally would have had the soprano Measha Brueggergosman singing something nicer than John Cage. I am afraid that if people new to classical music hear John Cage, they will just think we are all crazy. There is this beautiful song by Erik Satie on Measha B.'s new CD that I wish she had sung instead. But whatever. Let's not sweat the small stuff. A lot of good music was on the program, and they filled Carnegie Hall, and the crowd included a lot of people who never would have gone to a classical concert otherwise, from what I have read.

They got to hear the finale from Tchaikovsky Fourth! That is like some kind of drug. One of my friends from when I was a teenager, I remember he heard that just once and it hooked him on classical music for good.

So what if the YouTube Symphony wasn't the best orchestra ever, and so what if there was a lot of hype. I am happy for the hype. A lot of people got to hear music and a lot of kids and amateur musicians had a good time and YouTube, from what I understand, paid to get them all to New York so they could play. And Michael Tilson Thomas is hip and fun -- you can hear him talking on the YouTube clip above -- and I am sure he talked everyone out of the idea that classical music is something to be feared. YouTube is popular among all ages and it's great that they threw themselves behind this.

So much discussion these days centers on expanding the audience for classical music. I think people have become a little too obsessed with that question, sometimes floating wacky silver-bullet ideas that I am afraid will hurt the music and the traditions I have always loved of the concert hall.

Whereas I think all it comes down to is that people should get a chance to listen to the music, simply listen to it, they might want to go back again, and before long, they'll find they're getting the hang of it. That's the way anything works. People don't run across classical music in their everyday lives -- movies, cartoons, restaurants, etc. -- as they used to decades ago. It is great simply to give the music publicity, get everyone out there to listen and enjoy.

That seems to have been what happened Wednesday at Carnegie Hall.

I say, Bravo.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

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