July 2, 2015

Editor's Page

Miami's New World Symphony is finely tuned

Mark R. Howard | 4/30/2014

It is perhaps a commentary on the state of the classical music business these days that the New World Symphony in Miami Beach isn't more widely known around the state as the worldclass jewel that it is.

I use the term "classical music business" deliberately. The traditional model of funding American orchestras — donations from patrons and businesses supplemented by ticket sales and endowment income — has been eroding for more than 20 years. Orchestras now face economic facts of life created by high fixed-labor costs, an aging donor base, changing demographics, competition from other forms of entertainment and a dwindling appetite for the product. The percentage of U. S. adults who attended a classical music concert — they skew older and very white — fell from 11. 6% in 2002 to 8. 8% in 2012, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. More worrisome, according to a 2012 book by Stanford emeritus professor Robert Flanagan, "the percentage of adults who report liking classical music has declined steadily since 1992 and by 2008 was below the 1982 level."

Some orchestras, like the Florida Philharmonic, have gone out of business. At others, financial pressures surface in passionate but pointless artistic debates over "musical integrity" and what to play to attract more listeners — as if blending some magical proportion of avante garde works into the traditional Beethoven's Fifth-type "greatest hits" repertoire will bring new customers streaming through the doors.

As an infrequent consumer of classical music, I was vaguely aware of the New World Symphony, but until a recent trip to Miami, I didn't know how dynamic an institution it is and how creatively it approaches its mission.

The orchestra originated in the late 1980s in the brain of Michael Tilson Thomas. Thomas, 69, is the former principal conductor of the London Symphony and serves as both the music director of the San Francisco Symphony and artistic director of the New World Symphony, which he conducts several times a year. Initial funding for the New World Symphony came from Ted and Lin Arison; the Arisons and his company, Carnival Cruise Lines, have made big subsequent donations that have created a healthy endownment for the symphony.

Thomas wanted to create a vehicle to provide a top-tier professional development experience for the country's most talented young players — preparing them to be better musicians but also to assume leadership roles at the orchestras where they're likely to end up working.

Gifted graduates of collegiate music programs who are accepted at the New World Symphony get a three-year fellowship that includes an apartment and a modest stipend. They get opportunities to play with the Itzhak Perlmans and Yo Yo Mas of the music world, but they're also taught how to engage with a community, innovate new kinds of musical programs and even speak in public. In a state that exports a lot of talented young people and has to work hard to attract the best and brightest from elsewhere, the NWS is a center of excellence for some of the most musically gifted young people in the country.

Thomas and Arison wanted more than a glorified post-grad orchestra, however. And so just about everything at the NWS is calculated to appeal to potential listeners, including the orchestra's $160-million performance hall, which was designed by famed architect Frank Gehry and opened in 2011.

The all-glass east wall of the hall invites passers-by to watch activity inside, including the orchestra's rehearsals. The stage and seating allow for all manner of positioning both musicians and audience. Most performances are accompanied by lighting displays that change with the mood of the piece. During concerts, text is projected onto surfaces in the hall, adding information and context to the music at strategic moments. Rehearsal spaces are wired with video and ultra-fast Internet2 connections that allow NWS musicians to play real-time duets with others halfway around the world without worrying about internet lag. Outside the hall is a public park wired with high-quality speaker towers and high-def video projectors that face a 7,000-sq. -ft. exterior wall. Most concerts are streamed live — with close-ups of soloists — to listeners on the lawn, who come and go as they please.

The NWS also experiments extensively with concert formats. There are 30-minute "mini-concerts" where tickets sell for $2. 50, for example. "Encounter" concerts are 60-minute, themed educational programs that incorporate narration and lighting with the music. NWS even has a late-night format it calls "Pulse," where live classical music is blended with a DJ playing electronic dance music — meant to "blur the line between a concert and a party. " All the formats have succeeded at attracting listeners from more diverse backgrounds than the traditional classical audience — and the NWS has developed rigorous assessment tools to measure its own performance.

I love live music of many kinds but wasn't steeped in classical music while growing up. I have always found the traditional symphony experience formal and stultifying — sit still for two hours, don't cough and try to let the "culture" pour in through your ears. The New World Symphony directly addresses the things that keep people like myself out of the concert hall.

Arison's millions make a big difference in what the NWS is able to present, but it's the business ingredients of creativity, innovation and performance metrics that have helped the NWS maintain its music's cultural relevance and its own standing as an asset to its community — and to Florida.

The New World Symphony trains the next generation of top classical musicians while experimenting with ways to broaden the reach of the music itself.

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