Google Goes to Carnegie Hall

As I settled into my seat Wednesday evening for the debut of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, New York’s most regal of music venues, I had no idea what to expect. Sure, YouTube’s parent company Google has entered many surprising areas of industry and public life, from alternative energy and smart phones to health care and education. But sponsoring a symphonic orchestra? This was a whole new ballgame for the search giant.

A former student of classical music myself, I have to say the performance was impressive. The program spanned genres, periods, and geographies, from note-perfect renditions of standard fare like Mozart and Tchaikovsky to a wildly experimental work by John Cage and a new piece written and conducted by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon composer Tan Dun. And in a production decision that surely turned off classical music snobs, but which I quite appreciated, the entire stage was bathed in a colorful visual light show mixed with live, close-up video of the musicians on stage. This is YouTube, after all.

Video of the entire performance is now available here; a short clip I shot myself is below.

Excerpt from “Ride of the Valkyries,” Richard Wagner from Doug MacMillan on Vimeo.

The 96 orchestra members on stage were chosen from a pool of more than 3,000 applicants from all over the world, all of whom submitted video auditions via YouTube. Google highlighted the diversity of the group by producing short biographical segments on the lives of several members, which played between pieces.

In one of these videos, Kurt Hinterbichler, a bassist who hails from the Bronx, best articulated what many people on stage and in the audience must have been thinking. Google, he says “could have done anything. They could have created the YouTube International Basketball Team.” In other words, it's great that they assembled this melting pot of superb musicians from far and wide. But why?

Max Madile, the project manager for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra tells me the idea grew out of the company’s realization that YouTube is already a valuable platform for classical musicians and music buffs around the world. Orchestras and individual players frequently upload videos of themselves playing to promote their work, and in turn others use these videos as an educational tool in their own playing. Madile says this community is commonly perceived as niche, but it’s not: the 15 million page views and many thousands of comments accrued on YouTube from this project alone are a testament.

More than just marketing, this orchestra is a tangible way for Google to nurture this community, and build it up in markets as far flung as Morocco and Hungary. Madile couldn't speak to whether this might be part of a broader strategy for YouTube, but it appears that the unit is now focused on building value in a handful of segments rather than letting mainstream audiences control the fate of the site. The recent deal Google struck with Universal Music Group to create a YouTube-branded music video portal would support this direction.

I had the chance to film short interviews with Madile and three of the orchestra members on the afternoon before the concert. In the videos below, Madile explains how Google measures success on a unique project like this, and the musicians talk about how they actually do rely on YouTube in their professional lives.

Owain Williams, percussionist from London's Royal College of Music from Doug MacMillan on Vimeo.

Max Madile, project manager for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra from Doug MacMillan on Vimeo.

Jacqueline Morant, violinist from the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Texas from Doug MacMillan on Vimeo.

Manuel Zogby, professional violinist from Saltillo, Mexico from Doug MacMillan on Vimeo.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.