The future of classical music may be here. It comes in the form of the New World Center, a new building by superstar architect Frank Gehry set in a park just a short stroll from Lincoln Road's glitzy boutiques and sidewalk cafes and the Atlantic Ocean. From the rooftop garden, there is a panoramic view of classic art deco hotels like the Delano and Sagamore.
On a Saturday night in March, as I walked from the oceanfront, I could see, through a stand of palm trees in the park, the gigantic moving image of an orchestra on the front of the six-story building. It was the New World Symphony playing the second half of its program that night, with the performance beamed from the hall inside to the 7,000-square-foot projection wall outside.
The familiar strains of Elgar's Enigma Variations could be heard over the traffic on busy Washington Avenue.
The park was full of perhaps as many as 1,500 people. Much of the crowd had prepared for the evening, with beach chairs and sumptuous picnics spread out on the grass, but there were also plenty of people who seemed to have happened upon the concert and stopped to take in the music for a few minutes on their way to someplace else. South Beach on a postcard-perfect Saturday night in March was teeming with pedestrians, from folks walking their dogs to groups of young club hoppers constantly checking their smart phones.
The outdoor sound of most orchestras is usually dreadful, but here it was remarkably good, thanks to an "immersive'' system featuring green tubular structures that have 167 speakers focused on a swath of the park. Of course, the sound quality didn't match that of an orchestra in an acoustically excellent hall. But from a spot in the center of the listening area, it was vastly superior to anything I've heard in settings such as Florida Orchestra park concerts or on the lawn of the Tanglewood Music Festival, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in western Massachusetts.
When the orchestra, conducted by Alasdair Neale, played Elgar's "Nimrod'' variation, the looks on the faces of people in the crowd were rapt. They weren't chatting or munching on cheese and crackers or snoozing. They appeared to be totally absorbed in the music, basking in the stirring melodies and orchestration.
And the pictures from 10 robotic cameras inside the hall were sometimes amazing, as when the point of view shifted up to a position high overhead — what one production staffer described as "the hockey puck drop cam.'' There were also less effective visuals, such as having half the screen taken up by the translation of Rimbaud verse sung by French-Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin in the Britten song cycle Les Illuminations, leaving the picture of her, Neale and the orchestra too small.
These free concerts, called wallcasts, are destined to become the iconic event of the building, the only Gehry-designed structure in Florida. But they are only a part of the effort to revitalize classical music undertaken by the New World Symphony's artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, who is also music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Founded in 1987 and richly endowed by the Arison family (Carnival Cruise Lines), the professional training orchestra is made up of top-notch graduates of conservatories. Almost all of them will end up in orchestras around the country, and they eagerly embrace the challenge to shake up their old art form.
"It's tough for orchestras today to connect with audiences, especially young people,'' said Brandon McLean, a bass player in his final season as a fellow with the symphony. (He recently won an audition to be assistant principal bass with the Florida Orchestra.) "Attention spans are not what they used to be. People won't commit to sitting down for an hour and a half of music. We're trying some things here that might help the whole orchestra community.''
It was Tilson Thomas who brought Gehry into the $160 million project to design and build the New World Center. The friendship of conductor and architect began almost 60 years ago in Los Angeles — "I've known him (Gehry) since I was 8 years old. He was my babysitter,'' Tilson Thomas says in a promotional video — and together they conceived the New World Center to be a kind of laboratory in which to devise strategies to rescue classical music from its aging demographics, stuffy image and tradition-bound repertoire.
So far, two months into the building's life, they seem to be on the right track. Music and architecture critics have raved about Gehry's design and the orchestra's use of it. Audiences are flocking to performances, both in the park for wallcasts and in the concert hall.
"I think it's the proverbial game changer,'' said Neale, changed into a tropical magenta shirt after the concert. "There's pre-New World Center and post-New World Center. It's a whole new ball game.''
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For anyone who has seen Gehry's signature architecture — the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, say, or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain — the New World Center looks surprisingly modest from the outside. On the north side of the building, a typical Gehry wave-like "scoop'' mostly covers windows that allow light into the concert hall, and next to the white stucco projection wall, a large glass curtain occupies about half of the front of the building. But overall, the impression is unobtrusive and matter of fact.
The most obvious design flourishes are in the 2.5-acre park, called Soundscape, such as cartoonlike, cloud-inspired trellises that sport clumps of red bougainvillea. The park was designed not by Gehry (who backed out of doing it when the budget got too tight for his plans) but by the Dutch landscape architectural firm West 8.
Look a little more closely through the building's glass wall — not always easy on a sunny day because of the reflections — and you can see a riot of geometric shapes and soaring spaces. The interior of the building is where the elaborate architectural work takes place, as if Gehry turned his aesthetic inside-out. The shapes are structures that contain practice studios and rehearsal halls, a conference room and offices, not to mention the 756-seat concert hall. Walking into the skylit atrium and being confronted by all these swooping forms is like being enveloped by a sculpture.
"We needed a building that was inviting, that engaged people right away,'' said Howard Herring, the symphony president, who sees Gehry's architecture as the orchestra's come-on to the casual passer-by to give classical music a try.
"We talk with the guys who run Starbucks, because they use Lincoln Road to understand their business,'' Herring said. "They're very much aware of foot traffic and quick decisions and impulse buys. They're not selling coffee, they're selling an experience. They figure there are 5 million people who walk down Lincoln Road every year. Well, if we can attract just a fraction of those people, we think a lot of them will be hooked on our music.''
How to handle the crowds drawn to the building is a work in progress. The days I was there, a common occurrence was for someone to walk up to the building, peer through the glass, but then be unable to enter because the doors were locked. With features like a Frank Stella sculpture on one atrium wall, security is among the issues that keep the building from being accessible to the public.
"We are so frustrated,'' Herring said. "People come and look, but we can't begin to keep up with the demand for tours. We're training docents as fast as we can.''
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Though the wallcast was terrific fun, what really impressed me at the New World Center was the concert hall, where the next day I attended the same program I had seen and heard from the park. It is a gorgeous space, all blond wood and watery blue seat cushions, dominated by a series of large, curved acoustic "sails'' above the stage. With steeply raked seating in galleries that virtually surround the orchestra, it is a wonderfully warm, intimate place to experience music.
I sat in several spots around the hall for the Sunday matinee, and during the Enigma Variations, when I was seated just off stage right, I was close enough to read the notes on the score of a violinist and follow the fingering of the organist in her performance. It was fascinating to watch Neale's facial expressions and gestures from a vantage point not normally available to anyone but an orchestra musician.
Gehry and his acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota (who also worked on Disney Hall), clearly had younger listeners in mind when they designed the hall. The sound is exceedingly bright and in your face, though there is enough volume of air in the high-ceilinged space to provide ample resonance and bloom.
"You feel very close to the music,'' said Teddy Abrams, a conducting fellow in his third season with the symphony. "It's a loud, powerful sound. A lot of people of our generation have a relationship to music that is quite strong, you know, in the iPod era, listening to music on headphones, with the vibrations of the music pumping through you. You get a little bit of that sensation in our hall.''
Just about every New World Symphony performance, from a violin recital to the wallcast, has a visual component.
"We think it's an essential tool,'' Herring said. "It's a way to make the musical experience even more vivid.''
The acoustic sails in the hall double as projection surfaces, and they have been used for sophisticated video presentations to go with music like Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and the premiere of Thomas Ades' Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra.
In what could be a first for a symphony orchestra, New World has a director of lighting, and he comes from Cirque du Soleil no less. Stefan DeWilde is former head of lighting and atmospherics for Cirque's La Nouba in Orlando.
"New World is similar to Cirque in that it's a collaborative approach by all kinds of people from different backgrounds,'' DeWilde said. "We don't have people hanging in the air or odd objects coming up from the stage, but at the same time, we're really outside the box. Cirque is full of visual candy. Same thing here. The emphasis is on the orchestra, but we have fun things to look at on the screens and interesting lighting.''
One of the most radical concepts the symphony is trying out is its Pulse concert format, late-night affairs in which the hall is transformed into a kind of club setting, with cocktail bars and dancing encouraged. A DJ spins electronica tracks that segue into edgy orchestra pieces by the likes of Xenakis, Frank Zappa, Steve Reich and Bartok.
"It is really Cirque-ified and very surreal,'' DeWilde said. "We use strong, saturated primary colors. Deep blue and magenta, lime green. It is not a look you would encounter in a classical music facility, to see jagged lines of lime green all over the walls.''
Roll over, Beethoven, indeed. What could possibly be more out there?
"We're thinking about aerial ballet,'' DeWilde said. "People jumping off the side of the building on winch lines and bouncing off the atrium's glass wall. It's similar to what goes on in Ka (a Cirque show) in Vegas.
"Wall ballet — it's not that far off. This is never going to be a dusty old concert hall.''
Times performing arts critic John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.