BY MICHELLE PAYER
Hidden in plain sight in Miami Beach is an architectural masterpiece that comes alive from within and conceals one of the world’s most innovative music labs and performance spaces many locals have yet to discover: the New World Center, where the New World Symphony is celebrating 30 years this fall.
Its a building with a story to tell. Just one block off the Lincoln Road pedestrian promenade in South Beach sits one of the world’s greatest concert halls, envisioned by its renowned conductor, co-founder and artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, more than 30 years ago, and brought to life in 2011 with the New World Center designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry. Beginning October 2017 and extending through May 2018, the New World Symphony Orchestral Academy (NWS) celebrates its 30th anniversary in style, with a performance schedule that is as groundbreaking as its design.
It was a mission that no other city has previously endeavored, and because of new technology, the first fully digital building Gehry ever created. With no pencil, paper or analog drawings, it allowed curves, shapes, blocks and swoops to hold people’s imagination from the inside out. “From the outside it’s the architecture of invitation; from the inside, it’s the architecture of collision,” says New World Symphony president and CEO Howard Herring, describing the original structure.
The story goes that Tilson Thomas’s revolutionary idea for this music lab/concert hall/performance space so stumped architect Frank Gehry, whose cutting-edge works including Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, Paris’s Louis Vuitton Foundation and Prague’s Dancing House, that 20 minutes into the first meeting Gehry said, “Tell me where you want to go.”
Where Tilson Thomas and a handful of visionaries including the late Ted Arison (founder of Carnival Cruise Lines) and former Miami Beach Mayor Niesen Kasdin, wanted to go was where no American concert space had ventured before: a place of community and rigorous music education that upended rules, changed centuries-old structure and broke the mold for a concert hall that was at the same time an intensive laboratory for aspiring professional musicians and a place for residents and visitors to gather.
And gather they did, inside the performance hall with its 247 perfect-view seats, overhead curvilinear acoustic sails and 10 individual mechanical stage lifts, and outdoors for the free Wallcasts broadcast on a 7,000-square-foot wall at the lush SoundScape Park on New World Center’s east side. “It’s a center of gravity we didn’t have before,” says Herring about SoundScape Park, which attracts about 90,000 people a year in a place where “things happen culturally, technically and intellectually in one city block, purely by taking this music at the highest level of sight and sound and putting it out to the public,” he says. Sponsored by Citi, there are 12 Wallcasts a year, all free and open to the public to listen to visiting world-class musicians and New World Symphony’s 87-member orchestra.
My, how things have changed.“Two-hundred years ago, concert spaces were protected, privileged shells, designed for the aristocracy, then later, designed as virtual fortresses for the elite,” explains Herring. “We said, we’re going to throw this thing wide open. Anyone who wants to come, we want them with us,” he says about the inclusive New World Center that upended both design and convention.
Within Frank Gehry’s landmark design is a beehive of Fellows, as they’re known—87 graduates of major music conservatories around the world who were among more than 1,200 musicians that auditioned for just 30 annual fellowship openings to study for three years under Michael Tilson Thomas, plus visiting conductors, soloists and coaches to prepare for professional careers. While there, they put on more than 70 performances a year, including two yearly late-night experiences called PULSE, designed to entice a young, hip audience and those who want to see symphonies in yet another light. Since 1998, more than 1,000 Fellows have graduated and left conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and Miami to join prestigious symphony orchestras in Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and cities around the globe.
It is said that Billy Hunter, NWS alum and now principal trumpet at New York’s renowned Metropolitan Opera, mused, “If you can survive New World Symphony, you can survive anything,” referring to the musical education lab’s grueling curriculum that includes new programs every week and performance schedules that mirror those of the world’s finest orchestras.
Perhaps that is why celebrated global performers are descending upon Miami Beach to participate in NWS’ 30th anniversary, which starts with a season-opening bang October 14 with colorful, glamorous Chinese classical pianist Yuja Wang in a Saturday evening performance conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and projected as a public Wallcast.
Saturday, October 21, is NWS’ riskiest project yet, according to Herring: Project 305, an audio-visual symphony using a collection of more than 1,000 visuals submitted by Miami residents about what the city means to them and interpreted by composer Ted Hearn, filmmaker Jonathan David Kane, MIT composer, inventor and educator Tod Machover and artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas to debut in a free Wallcast concert. Modeled after the collaborative City Symphonies Machover has created around the world, it is a large-scale effort funded by the Knight Foundation with submissions collected since January. A community first, it will project Miami’s voice into visual interpretation by everyday people that have used everyday phones and mobile devices to create one, massive, expressive, original piece.
On Saturday, October 28, renowned French-born Chinese American cellist Yo-Yo Ma returns to Miami and joins Michael Tilson Thomas for a performance of Strauss.
Sunday, November 5, NWS continues its Concert for Kids series with two matinee performances; Saturday, November 11, another Wallcast concert lights up the Miami sky with “Poetic Reflections” featuring tenor Nicky Spence and Stravinsky Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Sunday, November 19, is “Kings of Vienna,” part of NWS’ chamber music series.
The first late-night PULSE party of the season is Friday, November 17, at 9 pm, with a late-night lounge, club-style lighting, video projection and a DJ spinning alongside NWS contemporary and classical works. If it sounds too cool for a typical symphony, that’s because New World Symphony is anything but typical.
As Herring says about the NWS experience, “When you come and hear the Fellows play, what you hear is youth and excellence; aspiration and reality; dedication to the art form and to their own talent. You wrap those things together and you have the New World Symphony,” he says.
All in Miami; the only metropolis in the US with such a progressive program that results in performances that could only be heard here.
As Herring says, “Forget what you know about symphonies. This is an experience.”
New World Center, Symphony and SoundScape are located at 500 17th Street, Miami Beach. For a complete schedule of 30th anniversary performances, visit nws.edu.
(Photos By Carlos Hidalgo, Rui Dias-Aidos, Emilio Collavino, WorldRedEye; Siggi Bachmann)