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Let’s play a word association game. I’ll say a phrase, and you tell me the first image that comes to mind.
Yeah, I thought so. For most people the idea of serious “art music” conjures images of old people sitting in an uncomfortable theater watching people in black tuxedos play stuffy music on antique instruments. While there is a grain of truth in that visual — the average age of the art music audience increases each year — the reality is so much more interesting. Miami’s New World Symphony is working to reverse that trend, and their new facility on Miami Beach is a major part of that effort.
The New World Symphony is not — as many people assume, based on their “America’s Orchestral Academy” tagline — a “school band.” Formed over twenty-five years ago by internationally renowned composer and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the goal of NWS is to provide the best graduates of leading music schools with additional education, training, and experience, allowing them to be more than just stellar musicians, but leaders in the music world, and in their communities.
There are only eighty-six fellowship positions available at any time, so these highly skilled musicians — over half of them already holding master or doctorate degrees — compete against their peers from around the world for the opportunity to be a part of this organization. If selected they will spend their three-year fellowships honing their skills not only as performing musicians, but will learn more about the practical aspects of being a working musician, including personal presentation, public speaking, and general leadership and communication skills. (Speaking as an ex-music major, I can tell you that most students prefer to let their art speak for them, making this training extremely helpful.) Moreover, they are groomed to be de facto ambassadors for the world of classical music, helping to remove its social stigma as art for old people, and helping to make art music accessible and engaging to the public at large.
To further that goal, in January 2011 the NWS will officially inaugurate its new campus on Miami Beach, a marvelous building designed by world famous architect Frank Gehry to be the ceterpiece of a revitalized public space. I was fortunate enough to be invited to tour the center in its final stages of preparation, and while photography was not yet allowed, they were kind enough to provide me with some renderings. (For an excellent discussion of the building and park from the perspective of an actual architect, read Miamism’s account of the same tour.)
Tilson Thomas and Gehry worked to design the facility around the educational nature of the NWS, while still creating a beautiful space. From what I saw, they succeeded admirably. The building is located beside a new, large public park built with Chicago’s Millennium Park as inspiration. Designed by West 8, Lincoln Park is a small but beautiful space reflective of the city of Miami Beach: open, accessible, and multi-functional. One end of the park includes a speaker-wrapped space seating a couple of hundred visitors as they watch live performances of the NWS projected on the exterior wall of the theater. (Note that use of the projector to display advertising materials of any kind is strictly forbidden.)
Inside, the space has an intimate feel, less awe-inspiring than friendly and comfortable. Oddly shaped structures and unexpected corners abound, looking in places like a huge set of children’s toys haphazardly stacked in a large room. Sometimes these blocks have windows, and sometimes only just white walls. On the other side of those walls and windows, however, are rehearsal rooms, offices, and the other non-performance spaces required by a working facility.
This leads to one of my favorite features of the building. To reflect the school’s goal of increasing engagement with the public, many of the student spaces are visible to the public, not hidden away behind blank walls. In fact, when entering via the elevated walkway from the (also Gehry-designed) parking garage next door, you cross above a hallway, aptly described by communications director Craig Hall as like the tunnel the players use to enter the stadium at a football game. If you arrive at the right moment, you’ll be able to wave to the performers as they cross underneath you on their way from the instrument lockers to the concert hall.
Together with similar features in other parts of the building, this leads to an effect not unlike the reinforced glass tunnels running through some large public aquariums. Beginning in October of next year, if you enter the building on a day without a scheduled performance you will be able to observe the fellows going about the business of rehearsal, practice, and so on, from the other side of the glass. The public and private spaces are commingled, but separate. It’s a brilliant idea, and one I suspect will be popular with the visitors (if not the fellows; many musicians are rather private).
The concert hall itself is beautiful, yet casual. It isn’t high-brow or stuffy at all; there’s a distinct impression that tuxedos might look out of place here. The stage itself has ten independently controlled risers, allowing it to accommodate performances ranging from the full orchestra to a solo piano. There are also four smaller stages ringing the main stage, allowing for still more variations, and when they aren’t in use can be easily turned into additional seating. This flexibility will be useful for the series of planned evening contemporary music events called Pulse, which will (according the the NWS site) “[…] feature the artistry of Mercury Soul together with the New World Symphony in performances of theatrically enhanced contemporary music integrated into an evening-long set of DJ-spun electronic.” DJs? Electronic music? Theatrically enhanced? At the symphony?
In the past the NWS has been good about mixing contemporary music with its traditional offerings, although the moneyed audience still comes out in force for the old stand-bys. As a NWS administrator told me several years ago, if you want people to write checks you need to trot out Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the 1812 Overture, and Rhapsody in Blue. As necessary as that may still be, though, those old money patrons are, bluntly, dying off. If classical or art music is to survive it must build a new audience, and that will be best achieved by performing living music alongside the standard repertoire.
Engagement with the audience is essential for any artistic endeavor. Surprise them, challenge them, and most importantly, share your enthusiasm with them. They will respond in kind. Sure, playing too many edgy contemporary composers may cost you a few of the tuxedoed bankers softly snoring through Brahms in the first row, but show people just how vital and exciting classical music can be and there will be a new generation of benefactors and fans moving in to replace them. Based on the comprehensive direction of this reimagining of the New World Symphony — from the concert hall to the educational campus to the event selections to the building itself — they are on the right track.
[Disclosure: As part of this tour I received free admission to that evening’s symphony performance. All images courtesy of Courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP, and New World Symphony.]