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A Music Center for the 21st Century: Miami's New World Symphony

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MIAMI BEACH, FL - When most folks plan their vacation to South Beach, Florida, they likely dream of days spent lounging around pools in stylish art deco hotels, or sunning along the long, wide strip of ocean beach. At night, they might grab dinner al fresco, then dress to the nines in an attempt to gain entry to some trendy hotspot where they can while away the hours dancing, prancing, or just lying around. When it's 80 degrees here and 30° back home, there are worse ways to spend a long weekend.

But, for those who think evenings in Miami Beach are confined to bass beats and overpriced cocktails, consider the New World Symphony, which turned thirty years old this year. I've been a longtime fan of this intrepid youth orchestra/academy, made up of 87 talented young musicians from across the U.S. and, increasingly, from around the world. Like Tanglewood, Aspen, and other post-conservatory programs, most come here to enhance their already-formidable skills in the hope of landing a position with a major orchestra. But instead of just one or two summers, at New World the fellows are given three years of all-expense-paid tuition, room and board - all just a stone's throw from the beach. Not a bad way to spend your post-college years. 

In prior visits, my experience has been limited to performances in the sparkling, Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, which opened in 2011 and remains the best small concert hall in America (second only to Gehry's Disney Hall in L.A.) But, after spending three days in South Beach sitting in on rehearsals, discussions, and performances, I've come to realize that what appears onstage at the New World Center on any given night is just one facet of a sophisticated, technologically advanced organization that over three decades has evolved from humble beginnings into a premier training ground for the musicians of the 21st century. 

New World Symphony 2018 - 3You may well ask how a $200 million music center often referred to as "America's Orchestral Academy" came to be plopped in the middle of Miami Beach, where middle aged men have been known to stroll down Collins Avenue wearing little more than a bright yellow thong. Thirty years ago, Ted Arison (1924-1999), founder of the Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines, saw a youth orchestra perform during a trip to Europe. Deeply impressed, Arison was inspired to bring a similar model to South Florida, which at that time did not have a full time orchestra. (It still doesn't.) 

Arison approached conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who after decades spent teaching at Tanglewood and elsewhere had developed his own vision of a music academy for post-conservatory musicians. A discussion ensued regarding what would be required to set up such a program, with Thomas concluding it would take at least a year to organize, possibly longer. 

"I want to hear music in three months," Arison replied. 

Thomas was taken aback. "You must be like the czar of Russia," he said. 

"I’m close,” said Arison.

So that fall, Thomas grabbed some teachers from Tanglewood and elsewhere and invited his inaugural class to South Beach, taking over a recreational center on 17th Street that soon proved to be less than ideal. At one point, Leonard Bernstein came to Miami to observe some master classes and lead a rehearsal of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Right in the middle of the tender, expressive 3rd movement, a worker suddenly barged into the rec center and bellowed, "Sorry, we've got to set up for the Bingo game now!"

"That was unique in his experience!" Thomas exclaimed. 

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The following year, New World moved into their own digs: an abandoned movie house called the Lincoln Theater (now an H&M) where they would remain for the next two decades. While a big improvement over the rec center, the Lincoln too soon proved inadequate for the ever-increasing scope of New World's mission. 

"It was essentially a one room schoolhouse," Thomas said. "Every time we did something, we had to set it up and and tear it down so we could build the next thing."

Over lunch on Lincoln Road, just a few doors down from the Lincoln Theater, New World President and CEO Howard Herring discussed how he and the board managed to get the city to lease them the land from a former parking lot for the princely sum of $1 a year. The project stalled for several years (sound familiar?), until MTT convinced his longtime friend (and former babysitter) Frank Gehry to submit a design for the building. With Gehry's name attached to the project, the money quickly rolled in, and the New World Center was completed in 2011, on time and on budget.  New World Symphony 2018 - 2At first glance, the New World Center doesn't resemble a typical Gehry design, its boxy, plain white surface designed to stand up to the salty ocean air (not to mention the occasional hurricane.) Instead, Gehry put the goodies on the inside, which can be seen through a transparent glass wall. Inside, the soaring, six-story atrium is filled with Gehry's trademark geometric shapes, behind which lie dozens of rehearsal rooms and studios where the fellows practice and participate in master classes with musicians from top flight orchestras, as well as soloists. 

Access to the concert hall is via a pair of long, curving tunnels that spit you out right in the center of the hall. The intimate space seats about 750, and has 14 different configurations that allow for multiple stages to be set up, sometimes during the same performance.The sound, designed by noted acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, is bright and resonant, without ever being overpowering. Above the stage - which, like Disney Hall, is set in the round - are five curved sails that double as projection screens both before and during performances. Taken as a whole, the space bears a striking resemblance to a circus tent - with MTT the ever-present ringmaster. 

New World Symphony 2018 - 9“The basic New World experience is that of an art piece," Thomas says, "something that suggests the quality of what they’re going to experience that evening. As the audience walks in, out of all different kinds of projections and light environments that we have - I don’t know how many it is now, it’s a constantly developing library - we will select something that is appropriate to the atmosphere and energy level of the music that’s about to happen." 

Those projections are designed and curated by Clyde Scott, New World's Director of Video Production, who's been referred to as "the NWS's secret weapon." During concerts, Scott - who has a background both in video production and as a musician - sits in a high-tech control booth above the seats, filled with monitors and control boards. From there, Scott works in tandem with a half-dozen assistants to create a multimedia experience - or, in Scott's words, "an immersive artistic projection" - designed to enhance the music without distracting from it. 

"Some of the more effective video things we’ve done were pieces by John Cage, Lukas Foss, George Antheil," Thomas said, "pieces where there wasn’t a long history that the audience had with them, where the creation of installations allowed people to get into the idea of the piece." 

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To illustrate his point, a quartet of fellows performed Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 4 while a digitally enhanced video of dancers in slow motion played overhead. The visuals enhanced the hypnotic, rhythmic quality of the music, as did the cool blue lighting, courtesy of Lighting Director Luke Kritzeck. 

"We’re also doing more with lighting," Thomas said, "subtly emphasizing the presence of different sections in the orchestra during a performance. We found out that if we light the soloists differently, in ways that subtly change over the course of a performance, we could get the audience to applaud at least 15-20% more," Thomas said with a wink.  

In addition, Scott oversees all of New World's Wallcast® concerts, employing 10 robotic HD cameras to project a dozen concerts each season onto a blank wall that faces the 2.5 acre SoundScape Park. Admission to all Wallcast concerts is free and they are immensely popular, regularly attracting overflow crowds of more than 2,000 people. (When the NWS isn't playing, the wall is used to show popular films and the occasional video art.)

New World Symphony 2018 - 6Scott said that each concert requires a rigorous setup process involving more than 400 pre-programmed video shots. "We develop a visual narrative to each piece," he said, "utilizing closeups, crossfades, overhead shots. Michael will often give us direction as to what to do at different points in the score, but we've been doing this long enough now that we've got it down to a system."

All of this multimedia is certainly impressive, and no doubt enhances the experience for most concertgoers, whether they're inside the hall or watching Wallcast. But, while eye-catching visuals and colorful lighting are commonplace in clubs and rock concerts, it's far from the norm in classical music, and runs the risk of potentially alienating more traditional patrons. None of which matters in the least to MTT.

“I’m a Thomashefsky,” Thomas said, referring to his grandparents who were stars of the American Yiddish Theater in the early 20th century. Indeed, Thomas has been doing theatrical, multimedia concerts since the early 1970s, when he led the Boston Symphony's Spectrum concerts, using colored lights and carousel slide shows in place of today’s more sophisticated technology. Clearly, projections and lighting are part and parcel of the New World experience - the real question is: why haven't they been more readily adopted by other orchestras?

New World Symphony 2018 - 7But, for all it's technical wizardry, the New World Center is more than just a high tech concert hall. It is, even more importantly, an advanced learning center where no expense has been spared on the latest technology, with soundproofed practice rooms, high definition audio and video recording equipment, and more than 17 miles of fiber optic cable. 

"The building is a reflection of the program," says Thomas. "It has the spaces we needed, the resources we needed to carry out the New World mission, which is to develop the next generation of musicians and prepare them for a career in music."

As an educational institution, NWS has access to Internet2: a dedicated broadband network with speeds up to 100 times that of standard commercial internet. According to Justin Trieger, New World's Director of New Media, that technology makes it possible to set up "networked performances" with musicians in other cities, as well as remote master classes using a system known as LOLA, or "Low Latency."

"LOLA allows for a transmission with someone up to 1,000 miles away with no noticeable delay," "Trieger said. "Beyond that, there is a slight, 40 millisecond delay, which makes it a bit tricky to use in live performance. But, it's still usable for master classes."

For New World, LOLA isn't just a gimmick. It's a means of self-preservation: Miami isn't a regular port of call for most classical musicians, and it’s far easier to connect with the best teachers/conductors through an Internet connection than it is to get them to South Florida in person. Even if it means they'll miss out catching up on their suntans.

New World Symphony 2018 - 5I had the chance to see LOLA in action later that evening, when MTT used it to conduct a master class in the SunTrust Center: a large multi-purpose room that serves as both rehearsal space for the orchestra and as an occasional performance and conference space. (Earlier in the week, the SunTrust Center hosted the annual Network Performing Arts Production Workshop, which discussed real world applications for LOLA in both learning and live performance.) In addition to the 100 or so people watching in person, the master class was streamed on MUSAIC, a collaborative digital video archive between New World and ten other conservatories in the U.S. and Europe.

After offering some guidance to a young bassoonist from Miami ("More rubato!” Thomas shouted as he played), Thomas turned to the monitors to work remotely with a high school trombonist in Nashville and a youth orchestra in Atlanta. The technology was certainly impressive, though it had its limitations: during one passage in Stravinsky's Firebird, MTT tried to wave off the youth orchestra when he heard something he didn't like. But the conductor - who had his back turned the video screen - kept beating away for several more bars. A few minutes later, they Atlantans complained that they had lost the picture entirely.

But, in spite of these glitches, rehearsal via video screen seemed to come naturally to these young musicians, for whom FaceTime and Facebook Messenger are a standard means of communication. Not to mention the way most people consume music in 2018 has shifted from acoustic to digital. 

"I suspect that the majority of people who experience music today" Thomas observed, "are not hearing it live in an actual room, but through recordings. And, most of the concerts they do go to are amplified."

New World Symphony 2018 - 5That said, the majority of musical instruction at New World is still delivered the old-fashioned way. On Thursday, I sat in on a live rehearsal for the annual Side By Side Concert, where some 46 high school musicians - some from as far away as South America - perform alongside New World fellows, in a program led by MTT. Thomas says that the Side By Side concert, now in its 5th year, is a manifestation of his “big brother/big sister” approach to mentoring, where the high schoolers and fellows share a music stand and talk through different playing techniques. 

Working on Dvořák's 8th symphony, MTT took them through different sections in a systematic - if nonlinear - way, focusing on where he knew the tough spots were. At times, he used colorful, evocative language to elicit a desired sound ("This part should be laughing!") At others, Thomas was specific about the balance he was looking for ("The sound of an orchestra is 40-50% strings, 40% brass, and 5-7%...whatever.") Thomas was affable but straightforward, never talking down to the musicians or assuming they couldn't execute precisely what he wanted. One could imagine a rehearsal with MTT's other orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, going more or less the same way. 

One advantage Thomas has with New World that he lacks elsewhere is the absence of union rules limiting rehearsal time, which has allowed for adventurous programming above and beyond what's possible with a professional orchestra.

"There are some pieces we’ve done here that are just too intricate to be done in SF," Thomas said. "I can’t figure out how to do them within the confines of a professional orchestra schedule, where the rehearsal time is so fast and compressed." 

New World Symphony 2018 - 9 (1)The competition to join the New World Symphony is fierce.  According to John Kieser, New World's Executive Vice President and Provost, they receive roughly 1500 applications each year for roughly 30 open slots, created either through attrition or when a fellow lands a full time position with an orchestra or ensemble. Auditioning is just one facet of the application process: according to Kieser, New World seeks to develop “platform careers,” where the fellows learn business and leadership skills to go along with their playing chops.

"Thirty years ago, the fellows were just focused on getting a job somewhere," said Thomas. "That element remains, but they’re also much more involved in special projects and in developing entrepreneurial strategies of other things that they might do outside of full time orchestral jobs."

"Most of us already had music jobs when we applied (to New World)," said cellist Blake-Anthony Johnson, a 1st year fellow from Atlanta. "Leadership is 99% of what they teach here. It's why we come here." 

As part of their development, all fellows are required to plan, design and execute a series of projects that actively engage with the community in some way. According to Cassidy Fitzpatrick, New World's VP for Musician Advancement, the projects are driven by the fellows' own passions and interests, such as an animal adoption drive, a "Bach in the Wild" recital in Everglades National Park, and a "Farm to Stage Day," engaging the children of Florida farmers in a day of musical exploration. While New World provides some basic resources, according to Fitzpatrick, it is up to the fellows to make their own contacts and recruit collaborators.

"We'll offer some guidance," said Fitzpatrick, "but they're pretty much on their own." 

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(l-r: Journalist Nancy Malitz and NWS Fellows Blake-Anthony Johnson and Meredith Bates)

Still, for most New World fellows, the primary goal is landing a gig. According to cellist Meredith Bates, a third year fellow from Philadelphia, the most valuable aspect of being at New World is the access to professional musicians from around the country.

"Mentors tell you what they hear," Bates said, "what works and what doesn’t work in an audition. You get much more candor here than you do from your teachers."

"I was actually going to quit," Johnson added. "But then (cellist) Lynn Harrell came to work with us, and he really turned me around. Just playing for him, I felt we had an immediate understanding, without saying a word."

"The experience of most of these musicians," Thomas said, "is that they've been to one school, where they worked with one teacher. And they come here, and suddenly they’re working with great artists from many, many different traditions, with different assumptions about how to make music. And, that’s very eye opening for them, and can change a lot of their sense of direction and priorities about what they want to do."

Indeed, while most New World alums have landed jobs in orchestras, several have pursued other paths. Several founding members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) were New World Fellows, as was Katie Wyatt, the Executive Director of El Sistema USA. So far this year, 20 New World fellows have landed full time gigs; Meredith was a finalist for a slot with Opera Philadelphia, and will sublist with them next season. For Blake-Anthony, the search continues.New World Symphony 2018 - 14Most people experience the New World Symphony through their 70-odd live concerts each season, most of which are held at the New World Center, though occasionally they appear at the Arsht Center across the bay in downtown Miami, and in other cities. (MTT brings the New World Symphony to Carnegie Hall next May for two concerts as Carnegie's Perspectives Artist, with a varied program including his own Preludes on Playthings of the Wind.) And so, it was only fitting that my visit to Miami ended with Saturday night's Side By Side concert, where I was surrounded by a diverse mix of proud parents and regular subscribers that looked a lot like the real world outside: young, old, Latinex, Black, Asian, etc. 

The concert began with Dvořák's 8th, and it was revelatory to see all the work I'd seen during rehearsal come into full flower. The music was at turns folksy and majestic, and the young orchestra played it with bristling intensity and snap precision. The rousing finale, with its low bass and multiple brass fanfares, had a joyful, almost manic quality that resulted in a wild - and well deserved - standing ovation. 

New World Symphony 2018 - 20During intermission, I moved outside so I could watch the second half of the concert via the Wallcast. From my seat about mid-lawn, surrounded by picnic baskets and citronella candles, I had a clear view of the larger-than-life projection, which was like watching the concert through a magic window. I was even more impressed by the clean, natural sound of the Meyer Sound bars, which managed to cancel out most of the surrounding street noise, save for the occasional Harley-Davidson.

Local high school student Matthew Hakkarrinen dispatched the first movement of Tchiakovsky's Violin Concerto impressively - especially considering he's only 17. And Ginastera's Estancia was full of galloping brass and bass drum, a bit like the Latin American version of Copland's Rodeo. Afterward, the crowd gradually dispersed into the warm night, with some talking about grabbing a nightcap in one of the hotels on Collins Avenue, while others wandered over to Lincoln Road to see a handful of fellows play a brief al fresco concert of Mozart and Vivaldi. 

If I learned anything during my week in Miami Beach, it's that the New World Center is the House that MTT built, and the New World Symphony may well go down as Thomas' greatest legacy. Thirty years on, Thomas remains full of boundless energy and endless curiosity, and clearly has no intentions of stepping away anytime soon. But at 73, he has already outlived his mentor, Bernstein, and having already announced his departure as Music Director in San Francisco, I couldn't help but wonder if Thomas has started to imagine a New World without him.New World Symphony 2018 - 22“Well, it's not really something I can control," Thomas said. "But, there are many musicians and alumni who have come here repeatedly as coaches who could easily carry on. In that sense, the continuity is already there. As for a director, it would have to be someone who wants to spend the time - I've spent at least three months a year here for the last 30 years."

At its core, what makes the New World Symphony so vital is the joy of discovering new musicians, playing music that's often new to them and most other people in the room - including the guy on the podium.  

"When Josh (Robison, MTT's husband and manager) and I are cooking," Thomas said, "we listen to various kinds of music we're not familiar with. Recently, its been Haydn and Scarlatti keyboard works. We don’t know these pieces at all, but as we’re listening, we can follow these wonderful gestures and designs that are happening in the music, and that is such tremendous pleasure! That’s what I would love to be able to give people, just to be able to experience that.”

The New World Symphony concludes their season tonight and tomorrow with MTT leading a Wallcast performance of Mahler's 9th symphony. If you happen to find yourself anywhere near South Beach, do yourself a favor and check it out. And, don't forget your lawn chair. New World Symphony 2018 - 1