The 2011 edition of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra has come and gone, the reports are in and the reviews have been…tepid, mostly confirming (albeit indirectly) the general suspicion that conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is far more interested in technology than in people. To be fair, he’s backed into a corner somewhat by geography; were he to announce himself a proponent of Sistema he would merely be viewed as being late to LA’s party, an intolerable position for someone in San Francisco.
I don’t feel particularly compelled to add to the existing commentary on the validity of the entire exercise.(The use of internet technology to present audition material is nothing new, particularly for someone of my background, nor are live-streaming concerts groundbreaking anymore.) As nice as the whole idea sounds, ultimately it really is a marketing endeavour, not an artistic one, and as a natural result the expectations and objectives are quite different. The experience, such as that it was, became far more meaningful for the musicians onstage than for the observers. As the culture blog of the LA Times noted:
In an irony so acute it’s almost painful, what will surely become one of the most-watched classical music concerts in recent memory was never really meant for an audience. Like the final showcase after a week of band camp, when all the parents come to collect their children, Sunday’s concert was all about the players’ experience. The problem is: If you weren’t there it doesn’t really mean anything.
But if you were on that stage, then it means a great deal. I’ve used the band camp analogy before when speaking of el Sistema, because it remains the forum, one admittedly very limited in scope, in which most of us will come closest to experiencing the social power of music. Band camp was never about the aesthetic encounter, as my parents who dutifully attended four concluding concerts would ruefully agree, but about the shared experience of the participants.
I still remember those performances. Artistically they ran the gamut from awful to adequate, but they were a celebration of many more things than just the notes on the page. Strangely enough, as the performances in which I participated became better, they generally became less meaningful. The exceptions to this were the tours I did in Europe as principal horn of various youth ensembles, and they ultimately prove the rule.
To this day, I can’t hear the closing bars of Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World without remembering an 18 year-old self sitting on a concert stage in the courtyard of a chateau in Rolle, Switzerland, looking out over the lake, waiting to play my solo, and feeling…well, if there were words for it, we wouldn’t need music. That symphony has become incredibly personally meaningful for me. It’s lovely stuff, as the frequency with which the work is programmed will attest, but it is layered with so much additional individual significance now, the technical delivery of performances I hear has become almost irrelevant. Something within it –or within me- has transcended the notes on the page, and those emotions are unfailingly evoked.
Which reminds me, a week ago Saturday marked the first anniversary of the Acarigua concert, my “Venezuelan début.” On the wall
next to my desk is a plaque, presented at the event by Roberto Zambrano on behalf of the musicians, thanking me and my colleagues for having “increased their knowledge, deepening their musical level…without counting the personal moments we shared through intercultural exchange.”
I’m professionally delighted I was able to be of some service towards the first two, but what I remember, and will remember most strongly, are the last.