YouTube, The Future of Classical Music

Valentina

For the millions who know her YouTube videos, this past Sunday’s full page article in The New York Times about classical pianist Valerie Lisitsa may be old news. I do love the quotes and the insights, mostly because the poke the sleeping bear that classical music has become.

“At pop events, audience members ubiquitously record the music, but the practice is invariably prohibited at formal classical spaces. At Carnegie Hall, ushers zealously race down the aisles to berate any device-toting offenders publicly.

I also admire the guts: when their bookings dried up, “they spent their life savings to hire the London Symphony Orchestra so Ms. Lisitsa could record the four Rachmaninoff concertos”

From Ms. Lisitsa:

There is a long train and we’re the last car on the train. Pop music is the first car. Now, any new song Lady Gaga does, she puts on YouTube first. And I don’t think she has any trouble selling her CDs.”

Here she is playing Rachmaninoff:

Attack of the Three-Foot Robin

You may recall that I’m a relative newbie when it comes to really big  TV. Our family room’s western wall is now dominated by a 60-inch Samsung plasma  screen is dominated by a stunning picture of a red robin who must be at least three feet tall. There’s a common yellow throat, also larger than my dog. A bufflehead. An olive-sided flycatcher. These are among 118 birds that receive full screen credits, alongside author Jonathan Franzen, legendary Central Park birdwatcher and tour guide Starr Saphir, and other humans who, particularly during the migration months of late spring, watch birds in Central Park. You can watch them, too.

I watched Birders: The Central Park Effect on Netflix, mostly because I was too tired last night to make any sort of meaningful viewing selection. My wife found Birders, enjoys bird watching, and so, we both spent an hour stunned by the images, a pleasant story, and the depths of, well, dweeb behavior (the word used by Franzen to describe his feeling when peering through binoculars and shutting out the rough-and-tumble big city).

Birder-GirlWhen the day winds down, my wife and I try to catch at least an hour’s worth of television viewing. Apart from two or three network series, we mostly forget that CBS, ABC, FOX, and NBC exist. We watch HBO, but never when the network schedules programs. Just about all viewing is on-demand, and nowadays, most of that viewing is done on Netflix.

When we first subscribed to Netflix’s online service, it was just awful. That’s no longer true. Not with every episode of Mission: Impossible (some tedious, some superb), a wide range of foreign and independent films, and lots and lots of interesting documentaries. Recent viewing includes a doc about 1960s-1970s singer Harry Nilsson (whose life story causes every ‘and then I found myself howling at the moon’ episode of Behind the Music seem like child’s play), another about the strident, talented, and fatally flawed 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs, and, the list goes on. It’s all available any time, any where, on any device, so the idea of tuning into anything that’s scheduled for somebody else’s convenience on a plain old TV seems, well, kinda silly.

Originally, we re-subscribed to Netflix to watch Kevin Spacey pretend to be a powerful congressman on House of Cards. We’ve now watched three or four episodes. We’re done. Spacey is consistently terrific, but the it’s difficult to justify watching smarmy Washingtonians sluggishly gumming up the works of government when there are three three foot tall American Coots and Dark-Eyed Juncos in the room (no, I never tire of ridiculous bird names). I’m told the British series is excellent, and it’s likely that watching somebody’s else’s screwed-up government will be more entertaining than watching our own dysfunction. But it’s not high on the list.

Much higher, and now just completed after six one-hour viewing sessions, is Stephen Fry in America. Fry is a popular, literate Brit who travels through the lower forty-eight in his black London Cab (which made its way across the Atlantic by boat). Below, he is enjoying life in a hot tub on a houseboat on a man-made lake with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline–“quite extraordinary” in his words.

Stephen-Fry

Fry travels to visit one of the few remaining residents of a Kansas ghost town (who remains optimistic about the tourist potential of his tumble-down main street), the man who runs Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, to paddle the Mississippi River with a man who truly loves his river, to hang out with Morgan Freeman in his blues club near the crossroads where Robert Johnson traded his soul for some superior guitar licks, spends a leisurely afternoon with a Western family that’s okay with the many nearby bears but not so much with the increasing number of aggressive wolves who have lost six of their dogs and an eleven-day-old coat to their hunger, and on from there.  We watched the series on Netflix. You can watch every minute of his adventures, for free, in high definition, on YouTube.

YouTube is becoming one my favorite “channels” (I don’t know the correct term, but video library seems clunky). This past weekend, I watched Paul Newman and Jane Curtin in an extraordinary big-screen production of Our Town, which was done on Broadway for Showtime and PBS. It’s here, and I’ve now recommended it to a lot of people because it is just terrific–a very different experience from our English class read aloud experience of the play in, what, tenth grade.

So what’s the point? Well, I’m pretty sure the point now goes well beyond binging on House of Cards (oy!), or Breaking Bad (not for me, either), or more than 250 original episodes of Mission: Impossible or Mary Tyler Moore or any number of other old TV series. There is a spectacular range of interesting programs now available, for free or at very reasonable prices, programs and films that you can watch on any device, on your own time. The only problem: it’s tough to know what’s available because (sorry to hammer this) House of Cards and its kinfolk get too much of the press. So here’s my attempt to shift the course of that river, one TV set at a time.

The Big TV, Part Two

Yesterday, I wrote about big TVs in general. Today, it’s the specific–the 60-inch screen that we now watch every day. It’s a Samsung plasma screen with many of the latest features.

The most important feature is, of course, the screen itself. It’s extraordinary. Great color, great detail, wonderful contrast, never a ghost image, rarely any digital lag (sometimes a concern with fast-moving sporting events and slower-moving processors).

Second most important is sound. As I’ve written previously, most large TVs are made with the assumption that an external system will be added. This particular TV is fine, but on some frequencies, there’s a bit of distortion. Doesn’t happen often. Shouldn’t happen at all. A common problem, but it goes away with an external sound system. (Note the loudspeakers below.)

Samsung-2013-interfaceThird most important feature is the interface–the ways that we interact with the TV set. This requires some explanation.

Mostly, we work with two remote controls. One is used to switch the cable channels, a feature we’ve never quite mastered within the Samsung interface, so we simply switch the channel on our original cable remote and put it aside. The main remote is the Samsung, and like most TV remotes, it takes a bit to understand most of the features, and, like most remotes, it contains buttons and features that I will never take the time to comprehend. Mostly, it’s useful for volume up-down, and for maneuvering a cursor around the on-screen interface.

This interface is a point-and-click design, limited in its alphanumeric capabilities. Mostly, we select an app from the Smart TV interface, then scroll through a series of visual menus to find the movie or TV show that we want to watch. There’s an Amazon Prime app that we’ve used to watch every episode of “Arrested Development” at no additional charge, and there’s a Netflix app that we use to watch “House of Cards” and the strange assortment of movies and documentaries that is rich in niche material and (happily!) lacking in major mainstream movies. These work well enough, but everything falls apart with the oh-so-promising YouTube app–no fault of Samsung here, for YouTube develops its own software. It’s one of those circa-1983 interfaces where you must use the up-down-left-right arrows on the remote in order to choose each individual character, each space, each deletion of an error. For YouTube, with its many idiosyncratic titles, it’s simply dreadful.

There are some other useful apps–one to watch TED Talks videos, another to check the weather, another which provides access to what may be the slowest internet web browser I have ever encountered. In truth, these criticisms are beginning to melt away because each year’s models tend to improve upon the (few) weaknesses of predecessors, and here, I’m discussing a 2012 TV set, ancient in current technology terms.

If you look closely at the above picture, you’ll see that the 2013 Samsung interface is clean, easy to use, and features a tremendous number of apps (you can add or delete them at will). You are, of course, looking at the future of TV on this screen. There’s an app for YouTube and CNBC, another for USA Today and TED, one for HBO GO, and one for Netflix. Each of these is an independent experience essentially unaffiliated with Samsung, but it’s all here, all easily accessible in its “am I a TV channel or a web site? glory? There is so much video, so many images, so much text to be read on a screen that offers abundant clarity and contrast. It is now reasonable to read the Sunday paper on your TV set, stopping to check in, via Skype, with relatives calling from far away, checking email, doing all of that. At long last, we have arrived in the future, and so far, it seems to work pretty well. (See my comments about processing power in the yesterday’s post.)

And then, there’s 3D. This mystifies me. Yes, there are 3D glasses. Yes, they feel really silly. Yes, the effect is still that vaguely grainy, slightly out-of-phase experience. No, I have not felt much of a need to watch anything in 3D for anything more than a family demonstration. Maybe some time in the future.

How much does all of this cost? Less than $2,000, even for a larger screen.

So what else is new? The answer is clearly articulated, with only a modest amount of marketing-speak, on this page from Samsung’s website.

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