A Whole New World

Miami Beach’s New World Symphony celebrates more than 30 years with director Michael Tilson Thomas.

Symphony Feature

For many, classical music has a bad rap as being unreachable and elitist, with steep ticket prices for concerts inside cold, impersonal theaters. The New World Symphony (NWS) in Miami, Florida, has been—and still is—changing all of that. Founded in 1987 by artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas (widely known as MTT) and Lin and Ted Arison, the NWS, also known as America’s Orchestral Academy, has championed the mission of preparing “highly-gifted grads of music programs for leadership roles in orchestras and ensembles around the world.”

The fellowship program offers exposure for 35 students to study both traditional and modern repertoire, receive professional training and personalized experiences, and the chance to work with guest conductors, soloists, and visiting faculty from all over the globe, both in person and via Skype. And while NWS has helped launch the careers of more than 1,000 alumni, its vision reaches far beyond jobs and outside the borders of Miami.

NWS wants to do the seemingly impossible, namely, secure a future for classical music by redefining, reaffirming, expressing and, perhaps most importantly, sharing its traditions with as many people as possible. The truth according to NWS, is that classical music isn’t just for the elite or for those over 50—it’s for anyone and everyone. This is partly why the fellows are selected based on musical achievement and promise, but also for their passion for the future of classical music.

Of course, to have such a lofty vision, there needs to be a leader up to the task. Enter Michael Tilson Thomas, who’s been conducting since he was barely out of high school at age 19. Born in Los Angeles, he’s got art in his blood: his grandparents were founding members of the Yiddish Theater in America, his father was a producer in the Mercury Theater Company in New York before moving to Los Angeles where he worked in film and television, and his mother was head of research for Columbia Pictures.

Frank Plaza

After studying at the University of Southern California, Thomas went on to conduct all over the world and record more than 120 records. And he continuously works outside of the genre, defying expectations and unwritten rules. He’s incorporated works by poets a number of times, such as Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Walt Whitman. It is this spirit of invention that has informed the lineup for NWS’ past events, which have been impressive and surprising, and shows promise for a bold future to come.

A quick scroll through the online calendar shows that having a wide range of musical offerings and a diversity of topics and issues is an integral part of NWS’ mission. For instance, in 2018, Pulse, a classical music experience created by NWS, was named Best Classical Music Experience by the Miami New Times, but it’s not what you’d expect. By mixing energetic performances with a nightclub atmosphere, Luke Kritzeck, director of lighting, described the show as, “one of our alternate format concerts.”

Pairing a DJ with a live orchestra, creating a disco-like environment without all the smoke and regrettable decisions, may seem strange, but also, it doesn’t. Not only does this inventive and unorthodox method keep classical music relevant and exciting for the modern age, the technology is state of the art, so it doesn’t feel hokey. Audience members don’t have to sit down, nor do they feel removed from the action on the stage, which is exactly what NWS wants. Audiences are encouraged to dance, mingle, and become part of the experience.

NWS prides itself on exploring how technology and classical music can work together in new and innovative ways, and rethinking how to teach classical, hear it, and experience it. In each concert, they want to shatter expectations. Another example of defying musical expectations? Music Bites in 2018 featured pairings of classical music alongside a three-course meal and optional wine pairing. Taking two fine arts and blending them together (literally and figuratively) is a way to explore the nuances and intricacies not only of sound, but also flavor, emotions, textures, smells, and colors.

Symphony Performance

Apart from pushing itself creatively, NWS is also committed to staying relevant when it comes to social justice and human rights issues. In 2018, it collaborated with the nonprofit TransSOCIAL to produce an evening of stories by people in the transgender community. Their words were paired with music performed by NWS fellows Priscilla Rinehart, Darren Hicks, and Zach Manzi. Beyond a gimmick, the event served as a way to give diverse voices an out-of-the-ordinary platform.

Another example: performing work that hasn’t been seen yet…anywhere. In 2018, conductor Brad Lubman led fellows in the US premiere of Lang’s harmony and understanding, a show that completely shatters convention by having the audience come on stage and join in the performance. And then there are cases of world premieres, such as a new work by Julia Wolfe in April 2019, by MTT and the Fellows, followed by a performance at Carnegie Hall in May 2019.

NWS is also committed to bringing in diverse audiences to its shows and events, and has been diligent in catering to a wide array of individuals, families, students, and more. It understands that in classical music, as with the rest of life, representation matters. According to a 2016 study from the League of American Orchestras, only 1.8 percent of the nation’s orchestra players are African American and just 2.5 percent are Latin, making orchestras one of the US’ least racially diverse institutions. All the more reason why in June 2018, it was a huge step for NWS to host 18 black and Latin string players at the New World Center for an audition intensive. The three-day seminar was only one of many activities planned and executed as part of the National Alliance for Audition Support, an initiative aimed at increasing diversity in American orchestras, created by The Sphinx Organization, NWS, and the League of American Orchestras.

NWS Events To Keep An Eye On

Sounds of the Times
Harmony and Understanding, conducted by Brad Lubman (December 2018)

Sounds of the Season
Conducted by Dean Whiteside (December 2018)

Chamber Music Masters
Featuring musicians of NWS (January 2019)

MTT and Christian Tetzlaff
From Bach to Ligeti, conducted by MTT and Dean Whiteside, with Christian Tetzlaff on the violin (February 2019)

Hélène Grimaud and Mahler
Conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with Grimaud on the piano (March 2019)

Carnegie Hall Preview
MTT’S Playthings, conducted by MTT with soprano, Mesha Brueggergosman, vocalist Mikaela Bennet, and mezzo-soprano, Kara Dugan (April 2019)

Season Finale
MTT and Yuja Wang, conducted by MTT with Wang on Piano (April 2019)

According to NWS president, Howard Herring, the audition intensive “[…] hones specific skills: intellectual focus, preparation time management, emotional stability, aesthetic and technical confidence, and steady nerves.”

As such, participants had the opportunity to work in group and individual settings with professional musicians who intimately understand the ins and outs of the audition process and could offer real-world expertise. Sessions also focused on performance psychology training, mock auditions, one-on-one lessons, and a faculty panel to talk about auditioning and the faculty’s career paths.

NWS knows that diverse orchestras do well in diverse communities, and in a setting such as Miami, it will also encourage understanding and creativity through inclusion in the arts.

Another obstacle that often presents itself in classical music’s attempts to gain new audiences is the location of the shows and events. Whether true or not, many people picture stuffy rooms, museum-like settings, and ultra-swanky vibes. In contrast, Miami is known for its beaches, diverse nightlife, and casual, laid-back, atmosphere—concert halls and classic music? Not so much. Which is why it makes sense that the home of an innovative organization and group of musicians had to be out of the ordinary, and designed by an architect with a keen eye, decades of experience, and, of course, a love of music.

Frank Gehry, as it turns out, has all of those qualities, and so much more. Best known for his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, his connection to MTT goes way, way back: the architect used to babysit the musician, and they initially bonded over Bach. In an effort to bridge the emotional gap between performers and audiences, MTT reached out to Gehry, who agreed to work on the building that would be part performance hall and part, as Gehry himself put it, a “teaching laboratory.”

Michael Tilson Thomas

NWS founder and director, Michael Tilson Thomas, aka MTT.

The site of the New World Center stretches two city blocks on what used to be a municipal parking lot in downtown South Beach. While Gehry is better known as imposing on his surroundings, for this project he went for adaptation, using the predominately white architecture and a stucco boxy structure in order to appear low-key and inviting. There’s also a large glass front and a few signature Gehry touches, such as a sail-shaped form that veers off the building’s side. But it’s the inside that offers the most delights: the lobby’s atrium is filled with curvy, balloon shapes that rise up six stories; there are circling stairways, practice rooms, offices, and state-of-the-art tech that make it stand out both nationally and worldwide.

The concert hall is horseshoe-shaped and intimate, with just 765 seats. According to Gehry, “the audience is right in the music,” which proves his thinking that music should be more than an aesthetic matter, but an emotional and visceral experience that will stay with you for more than the moment at hand. There are sail-shaped screens that help define the acoustics but also double as screens for video art or any other visual components needed for the pieces. All in all, it’s a building to foster the future of music, but also, for audiences today, for people who want to be both welcomed and challenged, to meet new worlds and people and experience the magic of music.

At the end of the day, there’s a big difference between reading about music and experiencing it, and many people still don’t know if they want to venture inside the building. Audiences get a solution for that with one of the best ways to get the feet wet with the NWS: attend a Wallcast, the free, outdoor concert simulcasts that show in SoundScape Park. Designed by the Dutch firm West 8, the park itself is full of winding paths, curved concrete benches, and plenty of grass on which to spread out a blanket and picnic. SoundScape Park faces the New World Center, and the 75-by-100-foot projection wall has state-of-the art sound, bringing the concert from the inside to the outside. Perfect for dates, family time, or a way to treat yourself to a night of surprises.

As for what’s on the inside, it can be overwhelming to know which event or concert to choose. There are the more traditional offerings for the old school, and then ones that may have you itching with curiosity. Either way, all you really need is a sense of adventure and discovery, and to know that you’re in the midst of something special. After all, listening to classical music on Miami Beach isn’t something that happens every day, now is it?

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