Opinion

From YouTube to Carnegie Hall

Coming soon, the first-ever YouTube Symphony, the 'world's first collaborative online orchestra.'

For every bassoonist or violist who's bemoaned his exclusion from that celebrated form of artistic democracy known as "American Idol," the dark days are over. No, Paula Abdul probably will not be waxing befuddled on the finer points of Mozart concertos. But YouTube has announced plans for something possibly even scarier: the YouTube Symphony, the "world's first collaborative online orchestra."

Want to apply? Go to YouTube's symphony channel and download the sheet music for your instrument for the Internet Symphony No. 1 "Eroica," a new work by Chinese composer Tan Dun. Then make a video of yourself playing your part -- and another playing a different composition -- and upload them to YouTube. If you need tutoring, there's a clip of the London Symphony Orchestra performing Tan's piece as well as video master classes from individual players.

Semifinalists will be chosen by judges from some of the world's major orchestras. The final picks will be selected by -- you guessed it -- YouTube viewers. A performance at Carnegie Hall, led by San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, will take place in April.

It's hard to know if the winners of this competition will follow in the tradition of their "American Idol" counterparts and declare their sexual orientation in People magazine or appear on "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew." What's grimly evident, though, is that classical music has been losing its audience for a while now; not only to that dastardly genre known as pop but, not to put too fine a point on it, to Alzheimer's, heart disease and stroke. As this paper reported in October, the average age of classical music concertgoers in 1982, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, was 40. Twenty years later, it was 49.

Granted, the median age of the general population is rising, so we can't surmise that Disney Hall will eventually transform into a nightclub for octogenarians. But that hasn't stopped the classical music community from making a serious effort to appeal to younger people. Here in L.A., of course, 27-year-old Gustavo Dudamel, the face of Venezuela's revered youth orchestra program, will succeed L.A. Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen next fall.

No question the YouTube Symphony Orchestra is geared toward the hope that kids can learn to love Brahms just as much as Beyoncé. But is it wise to allow an orchestra to be selected by those accustomed to posting about pet tricks? How, after all, can an audience raised on Auto-Tune vocal enhancement and digital sampling be expected to tell one violinist's pizzicato technique from another's? Won't "American Idol" standards prevail, saddling the YouTube Symphony with musicians who have questionable pitch but really awesome hair?

Presumably the professional judges will weed out the truly terrible in the first round, thereby preventing the YouTubers from doing too much sonic damage (my guess is many of the winners will have good pitch and good hair). But let's be honest: Classical musicians, while certainly not a monolithic group, do have a wee bit of a reputation for snobbishness.

They also operate within a brutally competitive arena. If there's a position open in the L.A. Philharmonic, explained Deborah Borda, L.A. Phil president, an average of 500 musicians will apply and 75 will be invited to audition live. If they like you, you typically sit in with the orchestra for at least a week to make sure everything's copacetic. Given that level of scrutiny, are the pros really going to support a venture that vests so much authority in mouse-clicking masses?

Apparently so. Borda, for her part, said she loved the democratization inherent in the YouTube Symphony concept. "It debunks the myth that you need certain qualifications for appreciating classical music," Borda said. "I'm sure there are some critics who will take a reactionary position, but I'm not one of them. And I've talked to some of our players and they've thought it was a great idea."

Really? But it's YouTube: the official network of forest yodelers and babies slobbering mashed peas down their chins while adults cheer in the background. Can this nitwit free-for-all be trusted to put together an orchestra worthy of Tilson Thomas and a Carnegie Hall gig?

"Music is about artistry and communication," Borda said. "And people know that when they hear it. The question is, 'Does this grab my heart?' "

Well, that's one of the questions. Others, of course, may run along the lines of "Why is that person playing a huge violin between her knees?" and "I thought an oboe was that thing that looked like a bong." But, hey, you have to start somewhere. Meanwhile, if any pea-drooling babies somehow end up in the flute section, let's hope they can at least double on piccolo.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

CHICAGO

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