Miami symphony dips its toes into the future

The New World Symphony is experimenting with Webcasts and building a high-tech new home.

By By John Fleming Times Performing Arts Critic
Published May 27, 2007


Michael Tilson Thomas has a wry sense of humor.

"Most symphony orchestras have the same relationship toward technology that Francis X. Bushman had toward the talkies, " Tilson Thomas said one recent Sunday afternoon at his office at the Lincoln Theatre, home of the New World Symphony.

In an hour or so, Tilson Thomas, artistic director of the symphony, would conduct what was billed as one of the first live Webcasts of a symphony orchestra concert. So naturally my conversation with him had turned to technology. But the reference to Bushman, while vaguely familiar, eluded me.

"Bushman was a famous silent movie actor, " the conductor explained. "After the talkies came in, he was basically history."

Could the now-forgotten matinee idol's fate also happen to symphony orchestras in a world that is fast moving its culture into cyberspace?

The New World Symphony is in a good position to try to answer questions about the technologies that appear to threaten orchestras, which already look a lot like dinosaurs with their aging audiences, stuffy image and tradition-bound repertoire. Richly endowed by the Arison family Carnival Cruise Lines, the professional training orchestra is made up of recent graduates of leading conservatories. It plays a wide-ranging season at its concert hall, a converted movie house, on stylish Lincoln Road.

It is a superb orchestra, with an uncommonly intelligent, adventurous approach to programming under Tilson Thomas. Part of its mission has become to explore technology and its application to the arts. New World was, for example, the first musical ensemble to become an Internet2 member, joining a consortium of research universities, technical corporations and federal agencies that share a high-speed broadband network. This allows the orchestra to transmit performances and classes in DVD quality video and sound.

In the fall, the orchestra will break ground on its futuristic new home in Miami Beach, a Frank Gehry-designed building that promises to be the most technologically advanced music facility in the country, if not the world. Scheduled to open in 2010, the building will include a 700-seat concert hall, rehearsal space and practice rooms, offices and state-of-the art technical equipment. Bolstered by an anonymous $90-million gift - one of the largest ever made to a symphony orchestra - the fundraising campaign is on track to raise $150-million for the building plus $50-million for an endowment. The symphony's current endowment is $73.6-million.

Tilson Thomas, who also is music director of the San Francisco Symphony, is the charismatic face of the orchestra. Once a protege of Leonard Bernstein, he is America's most media-savvy conductor, with syndicated shows on public TV (Keeping Score) and radio (The MTT Files). He's a witty, accessible interpreter of the sometimes arcane world of classical music, as comfortable discussing James Brown's soul hits as Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone compositions. Lately, he has been learning to adapt his style to the Internet.

"In each of these media - from speaking from the stage to TV and radio to the Internet - there's a different kind of approach you need to take, " said Tilson Thomas, who taped a casual, unscripted preconcert talk on Stravinsky's Petrouchka for the Webcast on which the piece was performed. "The more confined the space, the more low-key the presentation."

Tilson Thomas is excited about the possibilities of the new hall by Gehry, a longtime family friend who was a babysitter for the conductor-to-be when he was growing up in Los Angeles. "I think we'll use the building like a kind of music meeting house, " he said. "In addition to our normal concerts, we'll do things with different sorts of ensembles and different spaces."

Unlike Gehry's undulating designs for iconic structures such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, or Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the New World Symphony building (the architect's first in Florida) will not be especially flashy looking. But its functions are to include the capacity of projecting video images of performances inside onto its outside stucco walls.

"That's one way we hope to take advantage of the amazing foot traffic in this area, " Tilson Thomas said. The new building will be part of a complex and park on what is now two blocks of surface parking just north of Lincoln Theatre. "I think we can lure people in. Then we may present a different kind of program, maybe just 10 minutes long, like a sort of musical tasting menu."

Video imagery may also be used inside the concert hall, projected on the high, swooping walls. A promotional DVD shows towering ocean waves on the walls for a performance of La Mer and a trippy light and graphics show for a John Adams piece, Hoodoo Zephyr.

Tilson Thomas, 62, was suffering from a stiff lower back on the day I talked with him. In fact, his back was so bad he had conducted concerts the previous two nights while sitting. That afternoon, he did not appear in the first half of the concert program (when conducting fellow Steven Jarvi and guest violinist Christian Tetzlaff handled the podium duties). But after intermission he led Petrouchka on the Webcast portion of the concert.

I chose not to take in the performance on a computer because I didn't want to miss the rare pleasure of hearing the New World Symphony in its splendid, intimate theater. Stravinsky's music, a Tilson Thomas speciality, was not to be missed live.

The Webcast of Petrouchka did not seem to make much impact. There were only 500 official hits on the Web site during the performance. A blog kept during the week leading up to the concert by orchestra members Yukiko Sekino, the pianist who had a prominent part, and flutist Michael Gordon provided some interesting insights into rehearsal of the work, but there were no posted comments.

Nor was the Webcast archived, so I wasn't able to compare what it was like to experience Stravinsky's brilliant show piece in concert and online through the four robotic cameras positioned around the theater.

Howard Herring, chief executive of the symphony, did watch the Webcast, and he was enthusiastic when I talked with him outside the theater after the concert. "It's a beginning, like the early days of TV, " Herring said.

Other orchestras are experimenting with Webcasts. That same Sunday in April, the Philadelphia Orchestra transmitted its matinee concert of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique over Internet2 to large-screen venues at a half-dozen universities in the United States and Europe.

Of course, at this point in the development of online arts and entertainment, a Webcast is nobody's idea of an enjoyable way to listen to music that is readily available live (at least, I hope it isn't). It's no surprise that people didn't flock to their computers to take in the New World Symphony performance.

Even Tilson Thomas acknowledged as much in his parting comment to me.

"The big problem with technology, " he said, "is that it too often feels impersonal and dehumanizing. We still have to learn how to overcome that."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.




New World Symphony

The orchestra opens its 2007-08 season on Oct. 13 at the Lincoln Theatre, Miami Beach. For information call (305) 673-3331 or toll-free 1-800-597-3331, or see www.nws.edu. Single tickets go on sale Sept. 4.