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Music review: The potential of the New World Center in Miami Beach

January 27, 2011 |  2:00 pm

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MIAMI BEACH -- The New World Center, the Frank Gehry-designed home for the New World Symphony, had its first test Wednesday as classical music game-changer. But that test wasn’t the one most of us expected it would be.

The evening’s opening concert was the first full program in the concert hall, a proper tryout of the acoustical design by Yasuhisa Toyota in an auditorium laid out like a little Walt Disney Concert Hall (Toyota’s masterpiece). The program included the world premiere of Thomas Adès' “Polaris,” for which Tal Rosner made a film to be projected on five asymmetrical “sails” overhead that serve as sound reflectors and as screens. They help make this room not only shockingly immediate sonically but also the most sophisticated auditorium yet for assimilating video or film into a live musical experience.

Images look gorgeous, and the wrap-around effect of the sails is exciting. Here, at last, is projection bright enough that the light on musicians’ stands no longer bleaches the picture. But this is less a rejuvenation of an art form or, as some early reports have proclaimed, the savior of classical music (from what, you might ask?) than an enhancement of a process that has deep roots and a long history.

The New World Symphony is a training orchestra in South Beach that Michael Tilson Thomas founded 23 years ago and that had been playing in a nearby renovated Art Deco movie theater on the seedier end of the popular Lincoln Road promenade. Along with the concert hall, the center incorporates a lavishly media-friendly academy, with Internet2, enough Wi-Fi options to overwhelm an iPhone and the necessary gigabytes per second to permit remote instruction on a global scale. Gehry and Toyota gave the students such nice practice rooms that the architect also had to provide tempting communal spaces to facilitate interaction.

Everything here, no doubt, will contribute toward making highly accomplished young players better rounded and more sophisticated musicians (about 3% of all applicants, many of whom are the cream of the crop of conservatory graduates, are accepted). This too is more refinement than reinvention.

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But Wednesday morning as I walked up to the New World Center from Lincoln Road, with its come-hither restaurants and tourist clip joints, I encountered something new. I heard mysteriously alluring but unidentifiable music, a siren call. Strolling through the center’s adjoining new palm-tree-studded park, Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” Overture came into focus. Tilson Thomas was rehearsing it for the evening’s program and sound designers were trying out their outdoor 167-loud-speaker array, which will make its debut Friday night for the first "wallcast."

Gehry designed a façade for high-definition projections of the concerts inside. The sound system is the work of Fred Vogler (who is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s sound designer for Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl), and it produces a magnificently lifelike, multidimensional effect. For several moments, I couldn’t pull myself away to go inside the hall to hear the rehearsal. 

These outdoor wallcasts of the concerts happening indoors clearly will work. They will be free to the public and communal events, little resembling the L.A. Phil's high-priced new simulcasts of concerts in movie theaters, with their inferior sound systems.

Still, nothing can match the experience of unamplified music close up and loud, which is what the concert hall of the New World Center offers in spades. Some have already complained it is too close and loud for comfort. I sat near the rear of the hall Wednesday, and the orchestra sounded clear, impressively forceful and just short of overpowering.

Tilson Thomas led a sweeping, rousing “Dutchman” and then oversaw a tactile, iridescent premiere of Adès' “Polaris,” which the composer will conduct during the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Aspects of Adès” festival at Disney in April. It begins with sparkling piano, sounding almost Indonesian. Winds and brass begin long melodies that are repeated canonically by higher instruments as complexity and temperature rise.

It is an intricate, fascinating, hard-to-pin-down 12½-minute score, full of effects that perk the ear, especially with the brass effectively spread out around the hall. Rosner’s accompanying film –- of sea and rocks, of two serious ladies on the rocks seeming to have something important in mind, of abstract circles -- proved a heedless distraction. But it was beautifully shot and with images imaginatively designed to roam the sails.

The concert ended with Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony. This is a symphony that represented America at the end of World War II, the music of a nation ready for a new generation, newly confident. It is almost, but not quite, the great American symphony, and it came as close to greatness as it's going to get, what with Tilson Thomas digging out every implication of every phrase.

Copland reused his “Fanfare for the Common Man” for an overblown Finale, and the fanfare rang thunderous and true, a new generation of young players, newly confident that their New World Center was the center of a new world -- and gearing to play, Friday, for a new invention built to bring concerts to the common man.

RELATED

Dispatch from Miami: New World Symphony Center preview

Architecture review: Frank Gehry's New World Center in Miami Beach

-- Mark Swed

Photo: The New World Symphony performs in its new hall Wednesday night. Credit:  Rui Dias-Adios

 

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