Arts & Culture » Music

Brave New World

by Roberto Friedman

A New World Symphony Wallcast concert in Miami Beach. Photo: Rui Dias-Aidos
A New World Symphony Wallcast concert in Miami Beach. Photo: Rui Dias-Aidos  

Last month Out There was invited on a press trip to Miami Beach to experience the work of the New World Symphony, an orchestral academy for talented young musicians led by artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas. The NWS chooses 87 Fellows, each an orchestra seat, from 1,200-1,500 applicants a year. Their curriculum is comprised of musicianship (70-80 concerts, and a chamber series), community participation, and learning entrepreneurial skills. Fellows go on to top orchestra jobs and other music leadership positions. The academy is really a vibrant community of star musicians.

In the heart of Miami Beach, the New World Center concert hall, designed by architect Frank Gehry in collaboration with MTT and opened in 2011, is rather straightforward for a Gehry building. There are no Gehry quirks on the exterior: no titanium, no swooping roofscapes, just plenty of right angles. Inside, however, the building is cheerfully idiosyncratic, with unusual spaces, its performance halls chock-full of state-of-the-art electronics, premium acoustics designed by the master Yasuhisa Toyota, 17 miles of fiber optics, lots of natural light, and room for music-making. An airy atrium features the stainless aluminum tubing sculpture "Taboehan" (2003) by artist Frank Stella. The "juice" in the architectural vision, as they say, is all interior.

Part of the center, Performance Hall, with its "vineyard seating" for 756 concertgoers, was designed for a total immersive audio environment. Five large, 360-degree curvilinear acoustic "projection sails" bring video components into the concert experience. Lighting is state-of-the-art and can be dramatic. Tiers of seating can be moved to transform the space into a "nightclub" setting. The hall is outfitted with 10 fixed-position and moveable robotic HD cameras, offering 360-degree coverage of the space.

Michael Tilson Thomas in the New World Center atrium. Photo: Todd Eberle  

We attended a rehearsal, with MTT, NWS Fellows and student musicians, for a "Side-by-Side" concert later in the week. The conductor's instructions were compelling: "Make it sound joyous, and a little wild!" "If you want the audience to understand that you're playing triplets here, you must present it as triplets." He was both intimate and commanding with his charges.

Even more intensive was a Town Hall Master Class between MTT, musicians from Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's youth program, and a student from Nashville Symphony's "Accelerando" program. The three locales were linked over Internet2 (a broadband, next-generation Internet network) via LOLA technology, a low-latency video-audio transport with a transmission delay in the mere milliseconds. It was fascinating to watch musical instruction go out across the country with such technological precision. The future is here.

MTT was characteristically attuned to the student musicians, leavening his instruction with humorous anecdotes. About a phrase from the "Firebird Suite," which the Atlanta youth orchestra was rehearsing, he confided, "Stravinsky stole this line from Rimsky, who stole it from Borodin. It's a real old Russian chestnut!" He launched into another piece by murmuring, "Once upon a time," and they were off!

Saturday night brought the much-anticipated "Side-by-Side" concert. We listened to the first half inside the concert hall, and the second half outside in SoundScape Park, via the NWS' Wallcast. This was a live simulcast projected onto the concert hall's 7,000-sq.-ft. wall surrounded by 167 outdoor speakers. Each wallcast draws up to 2,000 people, and no wonder: it's a relaxing way to enjoy a concert, and the sound system is phenomenally faithful to the fare. NWS President Howard Herring likens the attraction to a "drive-in theater for classical music."

On our last day in Miami, OT had lunch with MTT, his husband Joshua Robison, and a small cohort of music journalists (from the BBC, USA Today, and elsewhere) in a top-floor lounge adjacent to the music director's private office. We spoke about many things, including the importance of getting music education back into the public schools. Music, observed MTT, could be offered "as a spiritual centering technique. Learning music could be connected to meditation practices, or even to physical education."

As a way of personalizing the role of music as a part of daily life, MTT told the story of how he and Robison often listen to music while cooking dinner together: some Haydn sonatas ("There are so many of them") or Scarlatti, for example.

In response, OT made the wee joke: "And then you realize the garlic is burning!" And that is how we made the maestro and his man break out into gleeful chortles. It was music to our ears.


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