Tilson Thomas Masterminds Bold New Work Menu

The New World Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas performing Jonathan David Kane and Ted Hearne’s ‘Miami in Movements.’
(Photos by Gregory Reed)
By Richard S. Ginell

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — The New World Symphony — the Miami Beach-based training orchestra that Michael Tilson Thomas co-founded 30 years ago and still serves as artistic director — has become, in his words, his “R&D (research and development) department.” Tilson Thomas has always been an idea man, and at 73, he continues to think young and take risks with new or unusual juxtapositions and combinations of formats, genres, and media. And you could call the orchestra’s annual New Work concert a pilot study for some of these ideas.

Michael Tilson Thomas narrated and conducted the New World Symphony.

On Feb. 3, I caught the seventh of the NWS’ New Work programs as part of a Music Critics Association of North America institute in Miami Beach, and I don’t think I have ever seen this combination of music, theater, video, lighting, projections, travelogue, autobiography, and social relevance rolled up into one package. But here, it may be becoming a tradition, for I’m told that they did something similar in a previous concert. In the NWS’ annual report for 2016-17, Tilson Thomas says he got the idea for New Work from gallery openings that feature many kinds of art — painting, sculpture, video, performance art, etc. — and thought this concept could be applied to concerts.

For a concert that brazenly tries to obliterate the boundaries of what a concert usually is, you might expect it to occur in a futuristic space — and the New World Center’s performance hall certainly is that. As a first-time visitor from California, once I got beyond the initial “wow” reaction upon entering the place, it felt sort of like home with its vineyard seating, familiar shapes, construction materials, and clear, detailed, razor-sharp acoustics. Yes, it’s another Frank Gehry/Yasuhisa Toyota building, a younger, much smaller (756-seat) cousin of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Only here, the predominant colors are blue (evoking the Atlantic Ocean) and white (reflecting the impressive collection of art deco buildings nearby), the audience is much closer to the performers, and the hall’s technical capabilities are way more extensive.

Until recently, Tilson Thomas has kept his own work as a composer mostly under wraps. Apparently there is a lot of it, hundreds of entries in journals over a period of 60 years, and not all of it is music per se. His reluctance to finish or share them is understandable if you take into account the time-consuming rigors of directing two major organizations in Miami Beach and San Francisco, guest conducting, traveling, and brainstorming that make it difficult to concentrate.

But with his retirement from the San Francisco Symphony two years away, Tilson Thomas is reassessing — and so here for the first time were three quirky entries from the MTT journals, grouped under the title Glimpse of the Big Picture with future installments intended. The first dates back to 1963, when he was 18, a piano piece called Whitsett Avenue: Sunset Soliloquy (Whitsett is a nondescript north-south artery in North Hollywood where MTT grew up) that consists of simple, searching ruminations for first the left hand only, then right hand, and finally both hands, ending on the extreme ends of the keyboard.

John Wilson performed a piano work by an 18-year-old Tilson Thomas.

Auction Dream (1977) is a strange, visionary spoken piece in which Tilson Thomas dreams he wins a star sapphire at an auction, with pre-recorded babbling voices and cocktail piano in the background. Lope (2012) for chamber orchestra, the most musically interesting and engaging of the three, could be a successor to Gershwin’s “Walking The Dog” (in this case, MTT’s two poodles), though the language is quite different, with whimsical staccato bursts and a slightly asymmetrical gait that gradually becomes a coherent, vigorous groove. Tilson Thomas gave each piece a spoken introduction, narrated the second one, and conducted the third. Pianist John Wilson performed the first piece as a video camera helpfully provided an overhead view of his hands.

During a pause for intermission, the center’s flexible stage shifted sections into a new configuration for The Inherent Sadness of Low-Lying Areas, a play about a post-traumatic stress disorder victim. In a long, moving program note, playwright Christopher Wall laid out the case for PTSD sufferers who did not acquire the disease from war; that means many of us in the general population who live with the aftereffects of a traumatic event. From what I could tell, the triggering event for the aging, blustery, bathrobe-clad victim here (played by Joel Leffert) may have been his wife (June Ballinger) leaving him, and she makes matters worse by bragging about her new man. Leffert’s character, like MTT, also has unfinished manuscripts, as the five messy stacks of bound journals on the stage indicated. Now that’s programming synergy, deliberate or not.

At first, Inherent Sadness seemed like an aimless absurdist play, but things cohered somewhat when the subject of PTSD finally came up about two-thirds of the way through the 35-minute work. A small team of musicians played an eclectic assortment of excerpts by J. S. Bach, Berio, Janacek, Prokofiev, Saariaho, and Schulhoff here and there to occasionally poignant effect.

Another intermission, another stage reconfiguration, and the concert turned to one of the New World Center’s signature projects, a reasonably honest multi-media portrait of its home city called Miami in Movements. This piece was the culmination of Project 305 (Miami’s area code) in which filmmaker Jonathan David Kane and composer Ted Hearne roamed the streets in a sound van interviewing people about Miami, coupled with videos and audio submitted by citizens and visitors on their own via an app developed by composer Tod Machover and the MIT Media Lab. The actual world premiere occurred last October, but the piece had since been revised and slightly expanded (Hearne says the section about the art deco district is new), so this was the world premiere of the revised version.

Joel Leffert played a PTSD victim in ‘The Inherent Sadness of Low-Lying Areas.’

Basically, the six-movement piece is a more complex, more enveloping, more thoroughly worked-out variation on television travelogues, albeit without narration. Tense, urban, at times driven, the score contains some of Hearne’s most interesting ideas to date, particularly the disruptive blasts of a jazz band of trumpets and percussion clashing with MTT and the full New World Symphony from a perch high in the hall, and the mournful trombones during the hurricane sequence. Frequently, the orchestra is altogether silent when samplers trigger onscreen voices and musicians.

All five of the gigantic white projection walls (or “sails”) inside the theater come into use, and they present a busy, vibrant, surround-vision collage, with a few grainy flashes into its glamorous past (though the massive Cuban expatriate presence in Miami is downplayed both onscreen and in the score). In the piece’s final minutes, as the rise of sea levels due to global warming become an existential threat to the region’s future, the score turns murky, then ominous. As in Al Gore’s recent film An Inconvenient Sequel, we see fish swimming in the streets during high tide. This is powerful theater, and for all of the vibrancy previously expressed on the screens, the piece ends with the helpless feeling that despite its resilience, this civilization is doomed to disappear under the sea.

A single-screen version of Miami in Movements with split-screen images is in the planning stage for performances in cities that don’t have the New World Center’s facilities. That means virtually all of them.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.


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