Peabody cellist joins YouTube orchestra

March 03, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

The Internet, which connects people every millisecond in one way or another, has generated an entire orchestra from a cyber pool of strangers - aspiring players from 70 countries on six continents who uploaded more than 3,000 audition videos.

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra, which bows April 15 in New York's famed Carnegie Hall with a concert led by esteemed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, began online in December with an open invitation to players of all levels to try out for the ensemble. The new orchestra is a joint initiative by YouTube, Carnegie Hall, the London Symphony and others.

Tilson Thomas and professionals from some of the world's leading orchestras evaluated the videos, while people from around the globe voted for their favorites. There have been more than 13 million views on YouTube, which Academy Award-winning composer Tan Dun calls "the biggest stage on earth."

About 200 finalists, ranging in age from 15 to 55, were chosen Feb. 14. Yesterday, the names of the 90 audition-winning musicians, representing 30 countries, were announced. The list includes Rachel Hsieh, a Michigan-born cellist who moved to Baltimore in 2007 to earn her master's degree at the Peabody Conservatory.

"I was really scared to be out of my little, enclosed student world and have my videos on YouTube for everyone to see," Hsieh says. The 24-year-old musician, a student of Alan Stepansky, says she didn't trumpet her involvement in the project. "I was a little embarrassed to say I was auditioning."

But folks at Peabody don't sound embarrassed that Hsieh took the online plunge. "I'm impressed that a Peabody student was one of the winners," says Mellasenah Morris, dean and deputy director of the conservatory. "And I'm amazed that this kind of opportunity is there."

Hsieh heard about the YouTube Symphony from the teacher of a class about copyrights at Peabody. "I had lobbied my parents for a new laptop, and I figured this was one way I could show them I was using it," the cellist says.

Prospective players went to the symphony site for a list of pieces they could audition with; they could also download their parts for a new work written for the cyber-spawned orchestra by Tan Dun (musicians could practice using video of the composer conducting the work). Seasoned pros offered advice on additional videos.

"All different types of people auditioned - amateurs, young cellists, older cellists," Hsieh says. She could check out the competition; the competition, not to mention the universe, could check out her playing. She did not go for any fancy atmosphere on her video, just a basic video camera and the microphone on her computer. But she did allow room for a little something different.

After filming herself playing the cello part for the Tan Dun composition, Hsieh turned to the lyrical passage for cellos at the opening of Rossini's William Tell Overture. "I was really irritated at that point," she says. "I had been depressed about my playing. I thought I was a failure."

With that negativity in her head, Hsieh reached over to the computer to make sure everything was functioning, then made a funny little face at the camera before starting to play. "I thought it would be important to have a personality come through," she says. "I thought maybe people would vote for me."

Hsieh and her fellow YouTube Symphony mates will arrive in New York on April 12, travel and lodging expenses paid, to begin rehearsing with Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony. "I don't even know what we're playing," the cellist says. The program is expected to be announced in about three weeks.

"I'm looking at this as a new possibility for bringing musicians together globally," Peabody's Morris says. "If it helps bring more interest to what we're doing in the classical music world, if it excites or re-energizes anybody about that world, I say go for it."

In a statement released yesterday, Tilson Thomas called the experience of judging the entries "a remarkably exciting process" that opened "a real window on the lives of music lovers everywhere."

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