Audition Politics Confront YouTube Orchestra

Will the Most Talented Players Win a Seat? Depends Who You Ask

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A traditional symphony orchestra audition takes place behind a screen, prohibiting the judges from knowing the identities of the applicants. Some women wear flats, so the clicking of heels won’t give away gender, and musicians don’t talk so as not to disclose identity.

But the auditions for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, which concluded last Friday, were anything but traditional. The tryouts took place not behind a physical screen, but a digital one -- through hundreds of videos uploaded to YouTube, and viewed freely on computers around the world. They show applicants playing orchestral excerpts on couches, concertos in dorm rooms and a cellist playing a Bach prelude while sitting atop a camel in Jordan.

The approximately 96 players chosen for the orchestra will convene in Sydney, Australia in March 2011 for a week of rehearsals, master-classes and concerts at the Sydney Opera House conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.  

In 2009, the YouTube project got plenty of press coverage lauding the international, multimedia and collaborative nature of the project. But after the event, the reviews of the actual music-making itself weren’t nearly as strong, with the Washington Post criticizing the orchestra sound as “ragged, uneven, of wildly different quality,” and the New York Times suggesting that while "worthy, and in ways inspiring," it was more gimmick than substance. The Guardian went further, calling it "mediocre and pointless." The second time around, it begs the question of whether an orchestra with an unproven, American-Idol-type voting process and a less-than-professional sound deserves this level of attention.

Applicants submitted videos by late November, finalists were announced in early December, and last week, the voting frenzy began. Anybody could vote up to once a day, for as many candidates as they liked, by clicking a button next to the video on YouTube.

There are 12 finalists, out of 336 total, who live in the New York City area. During the voting period, which ended on Dec. 17, they engaged in a mostly-virtual campaign to win as many votes as possible.

Bass clarinetist and doctoral student Christine Carter, 27, sent emails to everyone she knew and contacted the newspaper in the town where she studied as an undergraduate. Clarinetist and graduate student Mark Dover, 23, emailed all his old teachers and band directors, and encouraged them to email all their friends, creating what he called an “exponential” effect. Everyone made Facebook groups and events, continually reminding all their friends, in the Facebook sense of the word, to vote daily. “While I try not to make myself obnoxious, that might be a side-effect,” said 24-year-old cellist and graduate student Ben Larsen (pictured, right) who consulted a friend who had worked on political campaigns for pointers.

“It’s sort of funny,” said freelance violinist Monica Davis, 27. “It’s the opposite of any other orchestra audition, because you’re campaigning for someone to vote for you as opposed to it mattering what you actually sound like.” [see Davis's audition video]

Although YouTube doesn’t post vote counts, finalists scrutinized the number of views each video received, hypothesizing that the view counts, which varied from a hundred to tens of thousands, could be related to the number of votes.

They didn’t all like what they saw. “One guy has way more views than the rest of us, and he is by far the worst,” said one finalist, who declined to be named. “He could potentially win, and he sounds terrible.”

But in the fine print, a statement that confounded the finalist pool: the final decision rests with Michael Tilson Thomas. The conductor said that he consulted with a panel of musicians from major orchestras, which determined the finalist selection, and took into consideration the public vote but ultimately makes his decision based on artistic merit and personality. In the case of two equally qualified candidates, he does look at the personal stories and backgrounds of the musicians, he said.

Exactly how much the public vote counts – a matter YouTube and Tilson Thomas have been particularly guarded about – perhaps doesn’t matter, said David Cutler, author of the The Savvy Musician and coordinator of music entrepreneurship studies at Duquesne University. “So what if it does become a popularity contest?” he said. “If you only have people who really are qualified, but you find that some people are building a fan base, isn’t that exactly the kind of energy that our symphony orchestras need?”

This year’s project will be slightly different from the last one, said Tilson Thomas. Not only does he think the quality of applicants is higher, but there is more time for rehearsal and more unstructured time built into the schedule. “We left them space to make their own projects, which we hope leads to a more creative, democratic situation,” said Tilson Thomas.  “And that’s new territory for classical musicians.”

The orchestra – which broadcasts widely the personal stories of its members -- is a model for a future where orchestras are more about personality and relationship, and where the audience is part of the process, said Cutler.

“In the sports world people are totally aware of life stories and past injuries of the members of a team,” said Tilson Thomas. “But we haven’t been aware of the life story of the bass clarinet player in our local orchestra. One of the reasons people root for their team is they have a sense of all the members of their team and what they contribute.” The YouTube project explores how social media and technology can broadcast identity and personality, making the orchestra more than just an anonymous collection of musicians but a narrative that interacts with a community.

“You couldn’t be further away from playing something behind a screen."


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Comments [7]

Michael Meltzer

Violinhunter could write for Doonesbury, imagine classical music performance administered by the Post Office!
Still, if the whole problem apears on the eleven o'clock news in enough places, and captures the imagination of a journalist or two who could take up the plight of the American orchestra as a cause, the U-tube effort will have had real meaning.

Dec. 28 2010 02:16 PM

If quality did not matter so much, the Berlin Philharmonic would not sound the way it does. Perhaps some day soon, the government will impose quotas for the hiring process in our orchestras. Good sound, good intonation, and good rhythm will not matter. Quotas and political correctness will. (After all, most orchestras do receive government funding.)

Dec. 27 2010 11:30 PM
Bill D from nj

The point of the You Tube Symphony is not to compete with world class orchestras, it is supposed to work in finding new and different ideas with music, some of which may or may not be practical for use in orchestras and such. The biggest point of the You Tube Symphony is as MTT suggests, that orchestras should be part of a community, not some 'elite' organization distinct from where it is. We aren't in the 19th century, and orchestras have to realize that their model of 'we know what is right, this is what you listen to, that should be enough' isn't.

Maybe You Tube will give orchestras ideas that work for today, maybe for example it will give them ideas for hiring musicians that go beyond the anonymous audition alone, that besides finding players with superior technical skills, also finds players that as part of the audience can connect. Orchestras are no different then for example soloists, there are a ton of wannabe soloists who play incredibly well, who never make it because on stage they are boring and can't connect with an audience (like with orchestral music, these musicians often get praised by critics, who focus on their technical virtuosity and ignore their stage presence, but critics don't bring in audiences). Maybe you tube will wake up some creativity and find ways to get musicians who are technically incredible and interesting (I became a fan of Glenn Dictorow when I read things he had said defending the people who made music for Hollywood back in the golden age).

Dec. 27 2010 03:42 PM
Michael Meltzer

Sitting atop a camel should be appropriate for presentation to most competitions, because as we all know, a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

Dec. 27 2010 03:38 PM
Ruth Brons from Livingston, NJ

The dramatic contrast between the high skills and enthusiasm of younger players and the rapidly shrinking attention from the traditional orchestra supporters means two things: music will indeed somehow survive this hard period, and the musicians and organizations which dare to experiment and learn how to harness the new media powers will lead the way. Bravo to Michael Tilson Thomas for continuing to explore and stretch media options!

Ruth Brons, inventor of
Things 4 Strings[tm] bow hold accessories for beginners

Dec. 27 2010 01:04 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS, now 66 years old, a maestro with a cachet of accomplishments, understands that quality and audience outreach are BOTH important. If the Tammany Hall stuffing of the ballot boxes, voting the gravestone markers, voting dozens of times by the same person, getting Facebook friends to evangelize, conscript others to vote for someone they have never heard, should be the protocol for becoming a member of the U-TUBE Orchestra, THEN TALENT BECOMES A SIDE-ISSUE and the performances will sound like Spike Jones without the humor !!! It is tragic enough when such nonsense exists in politics. It should not misrepresent the masterpieces of the music literature, which abounds in symphonic formats.

Dec. 27 2010 12:30 AM
Michael Meltzer

Since our symphony orchestras are dying of neglect and depraved indifference to musical life, ANYthing that generates publicity is a big fat plus. Controversy about selection? Fine. More publicity. They don't sound as good as your community orchestra? Terrific. Support your community orchestra.

Dec. 26 2010 12:23 AM

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