New York’s Carnegie Hall will host the classical music answer to American Idol next month when the YouTube Symphony (YTSO) meets for its inaugural concert.
The world’s first collaborative orchestra is being run by the online video site, YouTube in partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, composer Tan Dun and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
"It's an amazing idea. It has promoted classical music to so many people. In some ways I guess it's like American Idol with the audience voting, but it is for classical music and orchestral players," enthuses violinist and surgeon, Calvin Lee.
More than 90 musicians from 30 countries were selected from thousands of people auditioned by recording and uploading their performance videos onto YouTube.
Describing the internet as the "invisible silk road", composer Tan Dun, best known for the score to the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon said: "YouTube is the biggest stage on earth, and I want to see what the world's undiscovered musical geniuses will create on it."
It’s not the first time surgeon and acupuncturist Calvin Lee has performed in Carnegie Hall. He performed there as a student of Brown University.
"I had just dated my wife the week before and then I had to be gone the next week for the Carnegie Hall performance. This time, I’m taking her with me," he says.
Sixteen years ago on April 15, he played Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Brown University Orchestra. This year on April 15 he will take to the stage with the YouTube Symphony.
Orchestra takes teaching online
The London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) presented a series of master classes on various instruments before the YTSO auditions took place.
These gave competition entrants an opportunity to get some guidance from professional musicians.
According to LSO Digital Space Development Manager Brian Moran, these were successful because they involved: "what the orchestra does best, which is playing music and of course it was for a project which was encouraging other people to play music. It was very simply captured, it was single camera, it was very YouTube in style in look and feel."
There were some concerns about audio quality considering most people were recording their auditions on camcorders.
But, when members of the London Symphony Orchestra judged the first round auditions, this was less of an issue than had been expected.
YouTube users were given the chance to vote online in the second round before conductor
Michael Tilson Thomas made the final choices.
Horn player Jim Moffat who secured a place in the YTSO explained that a video recording reveals important details about a musician and allows a teacher or audition panel assess performance standards.
"You can certainly tell when they breathe, you can tell how good their intonation (tuning) is , you can tell their rhythm, even their body placement," he said.
Most of the musicians playing in the YTSO have never played together before, says Mr Moffat, but they will rehearse together for three days before the concert.
The programme includes Tan Dun’s Internet Symphony No.1 ‘Eroica’.
Music crossing geographical and technological boundaries
Classical music has been a champion of new technologies for over a century.
"Classical music was the first kind of music to be recorded," for the gramophone and "with the advent of cinema, the possibility of sound tracking music, which LSO was heavily involved in well over a hundred years ago," says Brian Moran.
Audiences are keen to listen to music online and to follow what orchestras are doing even if they don’t come to concerts, Mr Moran explains.
"People want to experience the orchestra in different ways and classical music in different ways and ways that suits them and I think that’s the way the technology is bridging the gap. It’s allowing people to experience as much as they want at a time that’s convenient for them."
Social media help the orchestra to build a relationship with the more geographically removed audiences as "it’s much more difficult to be able and engage with them using the more traditional methods and the newer methods are great for keeping them informed about our whereabouts and what we’re doing," he said.
Doctor and Businessman dust off instruments
"You communicate through your music" even if you don’t have the language, Jim Moffat laughs as he recalls the time he spent studying music in Germany. The French Horn player says romantic notions of Bavaria tempted him away from Canada after completing his MBA.
However, on a rainy day in Cologne, he wondered if a move from business to the arts was such a good idea.
Clearly both his studies in music and business have paid off. As well as joining the brass section of the YouTube Symphony, he runs a marketing consultancy business in London.
"Orchestras, classical music, collaborative technology and social networking was an incredible intersection of all my interests," Jim muses when talking about why he auditioned for the orchestra.
Training as a surgeon meant that Calvin Lee’s violin became "dusty" and he recalls how much he missed playing the instrument at that time. He says he always intended going back to music.
"Being on stage is very much like being in the operating room, bright lights, people concentrating and a performance that must be masterful – giving it your best, and the show must go on… you can’t just stop the operation in the middle. Another similarity, MD to me means Medical Doctor, but to many musicians it stands for Music Director."
He encourages budding musicians to try a variety of musical styles including rap and heavy metal and to record and share their performances online, particularly through YouTube.
"There is much to learn from every form. I had a chance to play with Rachel Barton Pine," the classical and rock violinist, he explained.
"She had written a rendition of heavy metal songs for two-three stringed instruments."
"Violincase" Twitters about Grammy win
Classical musicians continue to embrace new technologies today.
Only earlier this week, the British Library announced it would be streaming 1,200 performances of music by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn and Mozart.
Most of the recordings are from 1915 to 1957 and provide a valuable insight into the style of classical music performance in the early twentieth century.
2009 also sees the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death.
Moving across the Atlantic, violinist Hilary Hahn, who collected a Grammy for best instrumental soloist with orchestra in February, uses technology to reach her fans.
After winning her Grammy, her Twitter name "violincase" read: "Hilary won another Grammy! Best Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra! Now we prepare for the recital tour."
YTSO horn player Jim Moffat suggests that YouTube video technology could be used to create an online music platform for music lessons and master classes, providing "the best of the world in every instrument and having a place to go where you can find them."
Setting the standards for this online music community would present one of its biggest challenges, he says.
In the meantime, the YouTube Symphony meets for its inaugural concert in New York on April 15.