YouTube cyber-orchestra puts a new spin on traditional auditions

Website’s invitation to audition by video for its new online orchestra rewrites the finely tuned art of judging a musician’s talent.

Screen shot of

American Idol” for classical musicians?

YouTube’s call last week for auditions for the world’s first online orchestra may help level the playing field for aspiring musicians, as well as expose a new generation to classical music. Invited to submit video entries for the newly created YouTube Symphony Orchestra channel, winners will perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall next April.

The draw for many musicians will be China’s Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), who has written a piece specially for the event called “The Internet Symphony.” Applicants will download the appropriate sheet music for their instrument and practice with a video of Dun conducting for their part. Next, they will film themselves and upload the video to YouTube. Then, they will upload a second performance, a classical piece of their choosing to show off their interpretive skills.

“It’s an interesting experiment,” says Luke Krafka, a cello performance major at Boston Conservatory, about the idea of a global cyber-orchestra.

George Nickson, an orchestral percussion student at the New England Conservatory of Music, agrees. “It’s a different way of approaching the audition process,” adding that the competition’s video audition “opens it up to amateurs who otherwise couldn’t audition for such a well-known conductor.”

But this leveling of the playing field for prospective players has its drawbacks. Traditional orchestral auditions are performed behind a screen, so the judges can’t see the musician. This ensures fairness, says Mr. Nickson, because the judges’ opinions are formed solely by what they hear.

“Being able to see the player changes the criteria by which people are judged,” he says. “So in a way, this could be perceived as a popularity contest.”

In addition, video auditions allow players to do as many takes as needed to get it right. Whereas with a live audition, “you only have one chance to do it, and the director automatically knows what kind of player they’re getting,” says Mr. Krafka.

“Live auditions ensure that players can deliver to the best of their abilities under pressure,” adds Nickson.
The effect the YouTube symphony ultimately has on the public may not have anything to do with the caliber of its participants, though. According to Krafka, the end product is not as important as the way it came about.

“It’s really nice to see classical music begin to become part of the 21st century,” he says. “Symphonies are really suffering. People just aren’t going to see them anymore. The things we do have been done for hundreds of years and that can be a deterrent to younger audiences. If we can use things like YouTube and Facebook and MySpace to connect with young people, that’s a good thing.”

Nickson agrees. “I think most major orchestras will view it a minor event,” he says. “I don’t think they will view it as something of the same caliber; more like a gimmick or a publicity stunt by Google.” But “it definitely could be something that gets people listening to classical music.”

“Any idea to get people into the concert halls and into the classical music world is an idea worth exploring,” says Krafka.

Entries will be accepted from now until Jan. 28. Semifinalists will be selected from the video entries by a judging panel composed of musicians from the world’s leading orchestras. In February, YouTube viewers will be invited to vote for their favorites.

The winning finalists will be announced on YouTube in March. They will then travel to New York City to participate in the three-day YouTube Symphony Orchestra summit. It will feature Chinese pianist Lang Lang and San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas, and culminate in the April 15 performance at Carnegie Hall.

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