If you wanted to hear the world's hottest, most hyped orchestra play live, would you A: prepare yourself to shell out on a ticket, or B: log onto the internet? A few years ago, A would have been the only viable answer for music lovers, but as classical performance moves increasingly into cyberspace, the internet is becoming one of the world's major venues for new performances, with the number of classical fans listening to music online rising monthly. At the vanguard of this remarkable shift is 2009's number one classical music talking point: the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.
This brand new ensemble is a grouping who not only have their largest audience online (there's a clue in the name) but who were actually auditioned via posts on the now ubiquitous internet clip site. From the thousands of brief entries uploaded by hopeful musicians, 90 players were selected this winter to create what has proved to be a genuinely vibrant and impressively professional orchestra, if internet clips (yes, them again) of their debut performance at New York's Carnegie Hall are anything to go by.
But while this online phenomenon's staying power as an ensemble remains to be tested, it is without question that they are showing what increasingly looks like an important future direction for classical music. With the market for CDs of almost any type very unsteady, classical musicians are increasingly targeting internet users as a way of enlarging their audiences, reducing their performances to an intricate code of ones and zeros and being electronically accessible almost everywhere in the world. What, we can only wonder, would Mozart have made of it?
It's possible he would have been pleased - it's hard, after all, not to be swept away by the sheer cleverness of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra concept. To have a chance of joining, aspiring musicians simply had to record themselves playing two prearranged pieces - a part from Beethoven's third Eroica symphony, and one solo piece appropriate for their instrument - and upload them to the orchestra's channel on YouTube.
Of course, getting a note-perfect recording of a complex piece in a single take must be a nerve-racking experience, but it's surely less stressful than a single chance audition in front of critical observers. Even more appealing, however, is the effortless access this type of audition gives musicians from across the world: among the 90 successful applicants, there are members from as far afield as Korea and Transylvania, none of whom would have had much chance of auditioning for a New York-based ensemble without the now widespread accessibility of broadband internet.
But then, this diversity is pretty much the point, as the project seems to be as interested in revealing the classical world's heterogeneity as it is in creating a regular, viable ensemble. It's led by Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, who has already masterminded such populist moves as his orchestra recording an album with Metallica, which reached number two on the Billboard Chart in 1999.
In a similar spirit of genre-busting inclusiveness, musicians for the YouTube orchestra were encouraged to audition even if their specialist instrument isn't normally found in a classical ensemble. True to their word, the orchestra has accepted musicians who play such atypically classical instruments as the marimba, and even the birbyne, an obscure oboe-like double-reeded pipe from Lithuania. The project has stirred up an incredible level of online traffic - the orchestra's YouTube channel has had over 15 million hits already, and the ensemble is soon to be the subject of a documentary following various members on their figurative and literal journeys from their homes to Carnegie Hall.
While all this is a great way to inspire internet-savvy youngsters with a taste for classical music, some questions still hang over the project: will the orchestra ever manage to be more than publicity for the medium that made it possible, a sort of highly skilled musical Benetton advertisement made flesh? With players scattered all over the world, isn't developing the sort of close, non-virtual artistic community that makes excellent playing in unison possible going to be nigh on impossible to foster? It has generated huge amounts of traffic for its website hosts, but the sheer expense of amassing the players regularly means they are likely to congregate only rarely. And will these meetings be like their Carnegie Hall performance, one-off galas that might arguably be more about celebrating the fact that the orchestra exists than about creating nuanced world-class performances?
Looking at excerpts from the concert online, it was indeed a remarkably vibrant, electric occasion, heavily punctuated though it was with video clips (what else?) telling the audience what a remarkable concept they were witnessing. Including works by composers as diverse as the baroque master Gabrieli and the contemporary Chinese film score maestro Tan Dun, the orchestra played with an impressive amount of energy and finesse, despite just a few days of rehearsal.
Undeniably, the project has mustered together an impressive amount of talent, much of which might otherwise have gone unnoticed. As for becoming a genuine, durable musical force, the jury is still out. As Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times's classical music critic has pointed out, the wide selection of single movements chosen for the concert is an excellent showcase for virtuosity, but is not the bread and butter of a successful orchestra, whose success is gauged by its interpretation of a piece's mood and shifts in its complex, variable entirety.
But to highlight the practical obstacles the YouTube orchestra has between it and consistent excellence is rather to miss the point. What it will be remembered for, I suspect, is celebrating the moment when the internet first started to suggest what the future would hold for classical music - a future that the genre has been struggling to find for some time. For while classical music's broad popularity remains, many performers are currently stuck in an impasse, finding it extremely difficult to gain attention and success through CD sales.
Of course, illegal downloading and CD burners have punctured music sales across the genres, but while popular music fans have taken up iTunes downloading rapidly, classical fans still have a very limited choice. More gravely, many music companies lost faith in the public's appetite for new classical recordings in the late Nineties and the number of recordings released since has dwindled. Instead, companies like Decca and EMI have started remastering and releasing historic classical recordings, often from famous conductors and orchestras, which are packaged as "definitive" versions of the works they presented. These were successful, but seriously damaged the market for new classical recordings. Not only has it promoted an archival obsession with creating a music library made up of single famous (and usually old) recordings from the likes of Karajan and Toscanini, but its commercial viability has made the expense of producing new recordings seem less interesting to the masters of the music industry.
This has led to many musicians relying exclusively on live performance for their money as recording opportunities dwindle. Often locked into multi-album deals with music companies, these performers find to their dismay that, despite selling out large halls around the world, their musical masters sit on their hands rather than allowing them to release new material. So how are these people supposed to reach out to audiences that can't or don't visit major concert halls?
The internet is clearly a possible way forward. Personally, whenever I want to hear a piece or performer I'm unfamiliar with nowadays, I go straight to YouTube and search. Their archive of clips is impressively varied, but extremely patchy, with pieces often segmented into random lengths and sound quality highly variable. As if to compensate for this randomness, a new breed of internet sites is springing up that offers clips of far more consistent quality. Among the best is the excellent www.plushmusic.tv, a site that hosts channels devoted to a still small but choice roster of performers, including a whole channel devoted to excerpts of operas performed at Glyndebourne. While the site generates no income for the artists, it does permit some cross-fertilisation between different classical music audiences. The site has in fact proved such a success that London's Wigmore Hall - which has its own plushmusic channel - is now converting its auditorium so that it can stream its concerts live online, jumping on a bandwagon already set rolling by New York's Metropolitan Opera.
Of course, online clips can never replace the thrill and intensity of a live performance. Even with the better sites, there's something frustratingly bitty about the snippets made available to the surfing public. But as a way of keeping live music healthy and alive, of introducing music aficionados to new performers and pieces, music online is immensely valuable - all the more so now that classical music on television is an increasingly rare occurrence.
Breaking out of the confines (and timetable) of the concert hall, it's quite possible that the stars of tomorrow will not be discovered in final year shows at music academies, but online. While classical music's fan base tends to be older and not always that quick to take up new technology, it's possible that the next Rostropovich, Menuhin or Callas is already out there to be discovered, without anyone even needing to leave their own home.