Orchestra Training Opens New World To Young Players

The South Beach home of the New World Symphony is the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center.
(Photo: Emilio Collavino)

MIAMI BEACH – There was something invigorating about an orchestra of eager twentysomethings, on the cusp of launching professional careers, performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 — the composer’s monumental last completed symphony. At a rehearsal for the New World Symphony’s 30th anniversary season-closing concerts, founding artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas had encouraged the orchestra to play the heart-wrenching Adagio finale “authentically, to your innermost selves.”

Michael Tilson Thomas led Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.
(Courtesy of New World Symphony)

At the May 5 concert, the murmurs and silences from the halting strings toward the end were fraught with meaning. There was a palpable feeling of transcendence in each drawn-out bowing, as the young string players captured Tilson Thomas’ sentiment.

“MTT [Tilson Thomas] talks about how enormous pieces are like national parks, especially Mahler symphonies, which are whole worlds unto themselves,” trumpet player Mark Grisez, a second-year fellow, told me on my visit to profile the lives of the New World musicians. As principal trumpet in the Ninth Symphony, he was the melodic linchpin of the Rondo-Burleske third movement. His playing in the Adagio finale felt thoughtful, as if he were reflecting on the ponderous main theme.

Trumpet fellow Mark Grisez (Tomas Ovalle)

“My job is to know how I relate to the other sections,” he said. “What’s my function at any given moment? What part of the park am I the tour guide on and how do I most effectively understand my route in the context of the whole?”

The New World Symphony is an elite training orchestra made up of recent graduates from leading music schools and conservatories who spend up to three years on fellowships to make the transition from academia to the world of professional symphony orchestras. During a 35-week season, the 87 fellows (including a librarian and an audio engineer) are immersed in every aspect related to the craft of their instrument and in the integration of classical music into the community beyond the walls of their South Beach home base, the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center. Fellows perform more than 60 concerts each season and, just as important, are given specialized coaching in community and audience engagement and entrepreneurship.

John Kieser, executive vice president and provost (Gregory Reed)

At least 1,000 applicants vie for about 35 positions each year. “What we look for is not only excellence in their musical ability,” said John Kieser, the institution’s executive vice president and provost who spent many years as general manager of the San Francisco Symphony. “We’re also looking for people who are curious, who have had community engagement or entrepreneurship experience, and who have an idea of the future of music.”

Fellows receive a $500 weekly stipend. The New World Symphony owns and manages 94 furnished apartments for them and visiting faculty a few blocks from the center.

From Miami Beach fellows travel to take auditions with professional orchestras, and they often win coveted posts before the end of their three years. In the 2016-17 season, 26 fellows landed principal positions, including Ran Kampel (principal clarinet of the Jacksonville Symphony), Caroline Gilbert (principal viola of the Buffalo Philharmonic), and Kelly Zimba (principal flute of the Toronto Symphony). Others won positions in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Auckland Philharmonia, Naples (Fla.) Philharmonic, and the symphony orchestras in Atlanta, Vancouver, Baltimore, and Charlotte.

Trumpeter Grisez, 24, a native of Fresno, Calif., first performed under Tilson Thomas as a member of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. From 2014 to 2016, he was acting associate principal trumpet of the San Francisco Symphony, which Tilson Thomas has led since 1995. Grisez’s stint took him on tour to such hallowed venues as Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, the Berlin Philharmonie, and the Concertgebouw. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music performance in 2015 from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

His goal is to join a professional orchestra full time, though he understands how the career of a classical musician has changed. Enterprising and digital savvy, Grisez developed the Facebook community The Curious Musician, for which he makes videos on practice technique and invites users to upload their own videos in response to topics under discussion. He has more than 1,800 followers to date.

Preparing for auditions is a crucial component in the life of the fellows. To help them learn to deal with that stressful, frustrating hurdle all orchestral players must face, mock auditions are carried out at the concert hall. To simulate the real thing, a screen is set between the candidates and the audition panel. (In a professional setting, the screen hides the candidate’s identity to neutralize gender bias.)

French horn fellow Priscilla Rinehart (Jarrett McCourt)

I observed a version of a mock audition in which Grisez, first-year violin fellow Margeaux Maloney, and third-year horn fellow Priscilla Rinehart got together in a small performance space. “This is candidate 47,” announced Rinehart, as Maloney walked to the front to play excerpts from Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4. Grisez and Rinehart took notes and gave feedback.

“The second time it felt like you backed off from the 16th notes,” commented Grisez, noting that singing his parts while practicing helps him improve intonation. The trumpeter then switched places with Maloney and played a bubbly Baroque fanfare as well as the Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition.

“I thought overall you had a good feel for what you wanted in each excerpt,” Maloney said. “The variety came in.”

New World brings in about 100 instrumental coaches each season to work with the fellows in master classes and private lessons. These are usually principal players with experience on audition committees of major orchestras and often include former fellows.

During my visit, second-year violin fellow Peiming Lin met with Alexander Kerr, concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. “Move your tricep and forearm until you don’t hear that choke anymore,” Kerr said, referring to a slightly muted note Lin played in a Mozart excerpt. The session covered posture, tempo adjustments, fingering, and the differences among vibrato styles for various orchestras. “Find the weight and speed that gives you the perfect chordal sound.”

On June 6-8, Kerr will be among coaches leading an audition intensive at the New World Center, organized by the National Alliance for Audition Support, an initiative designed to increase diversity in American orchestras. A collaboration of the New World Symphony, the Sphinx Organization, and the League of American Orchestras, the intensive will give 18 black and Latinx string players the opportunity to learn how to audition most effectively, a process honed by New World in the training of its fellows.

Violin fellow Margeaux Maloney (Courtesy of Margeaux Maloney)

But being an outstanding instrumentalist alone is not enough to make an orchestral career. The New World Symphony offers a series of seminars and workshops called The Independent Musician, in partnership with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Titles of the sessions include Negotiating, Funding & Development, Producing Concerts & Events, Resumes & CVs, and Finance: Show Me the Money. The program also covers marketing, social media, and media relations.

Provost Kieser maintains that the future of orchestras depends on empowering musicians. The old model of winning an audition, earning tenure, and rehearsing and playing concerts for a lifetime is a thing of the past, he told me: “An orchestra is more than just a group that performs in a community. If it has done its work well, it’s knitted into the fabric of the community.”

How this outlook is shaping the New World Symphony was reflected in a series of 21 community projects by fellows in April. “Bach in the Wild” consisted of performances by violin and horn at Everglades National Park, interspersed with periods of silence and appreciation of the sounds of nature. “Music Bites,” at Charcoal Garden Bar + Grill in Miami, offered chamber music as an expression of the food served. “Music for Animals” was a joint effort between fellows and the Miami-Dade County Animal Services for a pet adoption drive. “Transmuse” celebrated the transgender community in South Florida.

The New World concert hall (Rui Dias-Aidos)

“Musicians have great ideas. Listen to them,” said Cassidy Fitzpatrick, New World’s vice president for musician advancement. Her job is to make sure fellows acquire skills they can use all their careers, not just to land a gig. “Community engagement won’t help you win an audition,” she said. “But it will help you keep your job.”

Great ideas abound among New World alumni. Two years ago, Kansas City Symphony principal percussion Christopher McLaurin, a former fellow (2006-07), curated a program based on correspondence between Pierre Boulez and John Cage. In 2015, San Francisco Symphony principal percussion Jacob Nissly (2008-10 alumnus), curated a program called “Sticks & Stones” at the orchestra’s nightclub-like venue SoundBox.

Alumni have pursued parallel or alternative careers in music, deviating from the traditional route as orchestral players and, in some cases, holding high-profile administrative jobs. Bassoonist Rebekah Heller (2005-08), a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble since 2008, doubles as co-artistic director. Viola alumna Katie Wyatt (2004-06) co-founded Kidznotes in North Carolina, inspired by Venezuela’s music education program El Sistema. In 2016 Wyatt became executive director of El Sistema USA, and she has returned to New World to lead sessions on entrepreneurship.

The New World residency program MusicLab takes fellows to Miami-area classrooms to interact with students on music performance. This season, second-year flute fellow Elizabeth Lu visited a school once a month to coach budding flute players. She also adjudicated applicants and worked with students in wind sectionals for a side-by-side concert, in which middle and high schoolers played alongside fellows.

Flute fellow Elizabeth Lu (Jarrett McCourt)

Hailing from Manalapan, N.J., Lu made her solo debut at the age of 15 with the New Jersey Symphony, playing the Mozart Concerto in D major. Before joining New World, she was principal flute at the Young Artists Symphony in Los Angeles. She received a professional studies certificate from the Colburn School and also studied at the Juilliard Pre-College and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Her plan after leaving New World is to join a professional orchestra and continue teaching.

When we met, Lu had participated in a woodwind sectional with Joshua Smith, principal flute with the Cleveland Orchestra. At the weekend concerts she played second flute in the Mahler and in Ligeti’s Lontano, both for the first time. Conducting fellow Dean Whiteside led the orchestra through the dense web of sound in Ligeti’s 10-minute piece. A solid performance demands that woodwinds “make sure we’re blending,” said Lu. “We have so many overlapping parts where we play the same note but at different times. Intonation-wise, it can be a challenge.”

In rehearsal, Tilson Thomas had talked about the challenge of staying together as an ensemble in the slow tempo of Mahler’s closing Adagio. When the second violins and violas came in to complete the string section, together they languished and softly ebbed away. The strings sustained a clear sound and thoughtful, effective phrasing, even in the quietude and fading pulse of the protracted final bars, as the ghost of the main theme remained over sorrowful violins.

Violinist Peiming Lin will join the Indianapolis Symphony.
(Courtesy of Peiming Lin)

After a standing ovation, Tilson Thomas asked the fellows who will be playing in professional orchestras next season to stand. Among them were Emerson Millar (co-concertmaster, Naples Philharmonic), Elizabeth Oka (associate principal viola, Washington National Opera), Darren Hicks (associate principal bassoon, Toronto Symphony), Kyle Sanborn (assistant principal bass, Calgary Philharmonic), and Peiming Lin (assistant principal second violin, Indianapolis Symphony). By the end of May, 11 fellows had confirmed positions with orchestras for next season, and others had positions and trials that were yet to be announced.

The New World Symphony’s 2018-19 season begins in September and will feature two U.S. premieres, Gavin Bryars’ New York and David Lang’s harmony and understanding, and the world premiere of a work by Julia Wolfe.

Freelance writer Esteban Meneses has written about classical music in Orlando since 2010, writing for examiner.com and contributing regularly to Orlando Arts Magazine since 2011. He holds a Master of Arts degree from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and was recently admitted to the English doctoral program at Purdue University.  

A rehearsal room in the New World Center. Fellows train for up to three years. (Emilio Collavino)