A few days ago I returned home from my trip to sunny, summery Sydney, Australia! While I was in Sydney, I visited with the kangaroos and koalas, climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and took as many self-guided walking tours of the various neighborhoods of the city as I could fit in. But what I was really there for, and what was byfar the most fulfilling part of the trip, was rehearsing and performing with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra in the Sydney Opera House.
Before going, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I knew there would be musicians from 33 different countries whose ages ranged from 15 to 49. I knew there would be huge differences in playing styles and even bigger differences in levels of orchestral experience among the musicians. I’ll admit, I was a bit worried about what the orchestra would sound like. And the first rehearsal was, truthfully, really rocky. But by the final performance, not only did we sound good enough that we could have been mistaken for a professional ensemble, but it actually didn’t even matter how we sounded. As strange as it seems to say, the way the orchestra sounded really wasn’t the point of the performance. In fact, the point was to look for the bigger picture beyond the usual snobbery of classical music performances. The real purpose of the YTSO was to engage the general public all around world in classical music for the first time in a very long time. For too long, symphony concerts have only attracted wealthy, elderly audiences. The genius of the YouTube Symphony is that anyone, anywhere, could watch the concert for free as long as they had a computer and an internet connection. They could watch it at their own pace, catch bits and pieces of it, turn it off and come back to it later, and let it cater to their own lives instead of making them cater to the “tradition” that is a typical symphony orchestra performance. As of yesterday, 4 days after the concert was first streamed live on YouTube, it had been viewed over 33 million times. This officially made it the most frequently viewed live concert ever in the history of the video-sharing website. The band U2 previously held the record until this week. The concert was innovative in other unique ways too, though. Throughout the performance, lighting and video artists turned the inside AND the outside of the Sydney Opera House into a palette of colors and designs with their creative projections. It was a true marriage of music and technology, as each was enhanced by the other. The photo above was taken of the outside of the opera house during the performance; as the sound and sights were transmitted to a park across the harbor for people to experience the concert outdoors, the sails of the opera house were also painted by projectors throughout the evening.
If 33 million people watched this concert, what does it say about the so-called “death” of classical music? It seems to me that instead of talking about classical music’s death, we should be propelling it into the future and talking about more ways to link music and technology, live-streaming, video/lighting/projection arts, and any other resources we can think of to keep the symphony orchestra alive and relevant in the 21st century. There’s no question that the 2011 YouTube Symphony Orchestra was a success, but it didn’t necessarily succeed because the orchestra sounded fantastic. It succeeded because it paved the way for classical music to move forward in this constantly changing world.