By Barbara Jepson
MIAMI BEACH — This might be the wave of the future for American symphony orchestras: Concert stages bathed in atmospheric lighting. Abstract patterns projected on three sides of the hall. Classical music accompanied by specially created video images, or new compositions in which visual elements are an integral part of the piece. Free live simulcasts that beam indoor performances to listeners in an adjoining park. A mixture of traditional and alternative concert formats geared to audiences of different ages and tastes.
But all the above is already the norm for performances by the New World Symphony, an orchestral academy where 87 select annual “Fellows” learn to ace auditions, adapt to different conductors, and assume leadership roles in the classical music arena.
While U.S. orchestras have been exploring ways to attract new audiences for decades, the NWS is without doubt one of the most imaginative in methodology, particularly since the 2011 opening of its impressive Frank Gehry-designed facility, the New World Center, which contains sophisticated camera and projection systems that reportedly supersede those of other U.S. orchestras. It has also spearheaded a 4-year, multi-orchestra study with arts consultants WolfBrown that has had a major impact on the staid symphony world.
“They brought to these experiments,” said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, “the kind of discipline and rigor that often doesn’t happen. And they’ve firmly established the viability of mixing up the concert presentation experience.”
Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Kovner Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the studies statistically measured which alternative concert formats brought in the most first-time visitors, and characterized attenders by age, ethnicity, and degree of satisfaction with the event. At the NWS, the mix now includes 30-minute “Mini-Concerts”; free, outdoor NWS WALLCAST™ concerts; and PULSE, a late-night series with a club-like ambiance that juxtaposes DJ sets and classical music selections. Listeners can drink, text, or post on social media during performances. A subsequent WolfBrown research report on the WALLCAST™ events noted that of all the NWS formats, PULSE attracts the youngest audiences (53% of those attending from 2011-15 were under 45) and the most racially diverse (39% of those attending from 2013-15 identified themselves as non-white).
According to New World’s president and CEO Howard Herring, more than 850 representatives from 230 international arts organizations have visited the New World Center to attend a performance and learn about the organization’s programs. Among them is southwest Florida presenter Artis-Naples, which on Jan. 30 announced an $150 million master plan for its cultural campus in southwest Florida that will include an ascending terraced courtyard with a screen inspired by NWS WALLCAST™ technology. The Kennedy Center also plans to build an outdoor wall for simulcast and video events as part of its ongoing $136 million expansion.
The NWS was co-founded 30 years ago by artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas; about 90 percent of its 1,030 alumni make their livings from music. As an educational institution, it operates on a different economic model than professional symphony orchestras, unencumbered by union contracts. And it has gradually evolved into an incubator for new ideas. In its reach as well as in the high caliber of performances heard during an institute of the Music Critics Association of North America from Feb. 2-4, the NWS is punching way above the weight of its $16.5 million annual budget.
One part of the New World’s success reflects the intrepid, multi-faceted personality of Tilson Thomas himself. Reared in a family with theatrical roots, he was programming environmental happenings and cutting-edge music as early as the 1970s, when he led the “Spectrum Concerts” as associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In recent years, the conductor and composer has brought some of the NWS concepts to the San Francisco Symphony, where he has been music director for 23 seasons. In 2014, the San Franciscans launched the sell-out SoundBox concerts, which present new music in a high-tech, club-like setting. According to an SFS spokesperson, the 2018-19 season will offer 23 concerts with projection or multimedia elements, most of them on the subscription or SoundBox series.
Another part of the NWS success story is the philosophy of audience development espoused by its leadership, essential at a time when audiences for classical music in general, and symphony orchestras in particular, are declining. “You must go far beyond the concept that if you play well, you will attract a following,” said Herring. “You have to turn that around, and think about invitation, access, penetration, and relevance. You must build new bridges, you must engage people where they are. We’ve said, can we bring in the yoga students of Miami? Can we bring casual strollers who are walking Lincoln Road?”
Such considerations became the impetus behind monthly yoga classes presented by a healthcare organization at the New World Center with live accompaniment by NWS musicians and the popular WALLCAST™ events, which attract passersby as well as those who picnic in the surrounding park while listening. The goal is not to turn these attenders into subscribers, but to broaden interest in classical music in the Miami community.
Miami in Movements, the centerpiece of a New Work program of three world premieres witnessed on Feb. 3 (see the CVNA review here) exemplifies continued endeavors along those lines. The piece, by composer Ted Hearne and filmmaker Jonathan David Kane, utilizes videos submitted by the public as well as filmed interviews and other footage. Funded by the Knight Foundation, it was part of an effort, according to Foundation Vice President of Arts Victoria Rogers, to help Miami be a city that produces art, not just consumes it.
The 756-seat hall was attractively downlit in purple that night, and changing geometric patterns in purple, pink, or white appeared on the largest of five projection “sails” designed by Gehry. These visuals vary week to week to create a hip, stimulating vibe as listeners enter the hall.
When the video and musical elements are conceived collaboratively, as in Miami in Movements, they enhance each other, forming a memorable, and at times, moving, whole. But on Feb. 2, MCANA Institute participants had witnessed excerpts from two instrumental works to which visual elements had been added: a movement from Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2, “Company,” and an excerpt from George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony. There, the engaging images relegated the music to mere accompaniment, at least for this Baby Boomer.
On both occasions, the sense of creative ferment, of ideas being developed, refined, or discarded, was strong. The NWS commitment to connecting with new audiences is impressive and provides hope for the longevity of a much-loved art form. Yet the performances left me with a tinge of sadness because instrumental music doesn’t seem to be enough for younger audiences. More and more, the lines between orchestra performances and contemporary opera are blurring, changing the notion of what a symphonic work can be. Of course, the NWS still does topnotch traditional-style concerts with no video accompaniment. Yet 20 years from now, will such absorbing, composer-focused music-making even exist?
Barbara Jepson is a longtime contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Life & Arts section. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Arts & Leisure, Smithsonian, Opera News, MusicalAmerica.com and other publications. She is on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America, having recently completed two terms as its president.