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30 Years of New World Symphony (II)
05/24/2018

(Following is the second of three articles about the 30th anniversary of Miami’s unique “New World Symphony” organization)



MTT introducing his orchestra (© Samuel A. Dog)


At Michael Tilson Thomas’s New World Symphony in Miami Beach, one forgets the legendary concept of the autocratic Grand Maestro. It was true during the 19th Century from Spohr (the first real conductor) to Toscanini and Von Karajan. Movies still promote the idea that the conductor is Dictator of the Baton. He approaches the dais, he beats time, he shouts out, “Play it more sadly, much more sadly. Make me cry.”


Or Sir Thomas Beecham would be sarcastic. (Beecham got great results despite saying to the First Cellist, “Madame, that thing between your legs is to be bowed, not scratched.”)


But Mr. Thomas (known to the hundred-odd musicians, technicians and the cleaning lady either Michael or MTT) is hardly in that category. Yes, as a 74-year-old artist who was raised with fellow artists as long as he remembers (Stravinsky was a regular guest at his San Francisco home), he is the total professional. When he mounts the platform to rehearse his young orchestra in Antonín Dvorák’s Eighth Symphony he is all business. The strings must give a lift to this section, those trumpet fanfares must be more blazing the flutes must be twittering, more birdlike, less rubato.


Rehearsal over, MTT doesn’t go back in the wings. He has been working all day, but now sits down to chat with the players. They don’t approach him with suitable modesty, but come with a joke, a question. He makes the rounds. Perhaps a friend will bring over his poodle (one of two) to greet him. He holds the dog up, then goes back to speak with the oboe player. Rehearsal with musicians done, he may go back to his Miami apartment, or speak with a visiting journalist or two.


The next day, he is the Master of the Master Classes. MTT is especially proud here for good reason. A few years ago, when I visited, the New World Symphony was all for the musicians and concerts. Now, thanks to a whopping spectacular explosion of technical magic, MTT holds three Master Classes a night from a single spot on the Miami stage.



Master Class with MTT (© Samuel A. Dog)


A bassoon player plays part of a rare concerto by Carl Maria von Weber on the stage, MTT following the score, coaches him on accentuating the high notes or low notes. After that, the screen shows a trombonist in Nashville, his parents looking on, as MTT gets him playing a Trombone Cavatina by Camille Saint-Saëns with more excitement, more contrast. Finally, the Atlanta Youth Orchestra, conducted by an equally young fervent conductor, plays the Firebird’s “Infernal Dance”. MTT, one of the iconic Stravinsky conductors of our day, is happy at their expertise, but takes them bar by bar to offer even more vitality.


That done, MTT doesn’t go home. He sits down with the bassoonist, chats with the small audience and finally gets set for the next day.


And that day, MTT is everywhere. His setups for stage and lighting–indoor and outdoor–are vitally important, and he goes over the camera shots with the technical crew–they now use up to 700 different shots for a single symphony.


“Michael,” says the tech-leader in his booth, “is vitally interested in the whole setup. Sometimes, with modern works, pieces commissioned by New World, we can add videos. We already have videos on the screen for audiences when they enter, to make sure that they were entering a new world.


“But never would Michael approve anything which would divert from the sound quality of music. That he to speak for itself.”


And since the New World Symphony takes its subtitle–“America’s Orchestral Academy”–literally, the Artistic Director, MTT himself is literally out with as much electronic expertise as he can muster, to carry on this most original idea.


Which, quite frankly, is not the easiest idea to explain. In yesterday’s column, I attempted to give some idea of the tentacle-like reach to Miami, to America and to the world. In the meantime, Michael Tilson Thomas himself, tries to explain his future.


Over a lunch of sandwiches and a soft drink, MTT, as always informal, easy-going, that rare public persona who thinks before he speaks, describes the “Faustian bargain” of music and technical resources.


Since the New World Symphony was founded exactly 30 years ago, as a “training orchestra” for already proficient musicians, he has been astonished at its changes.


“The orchestra still has priority here, but the players themselves have branched out just as we have. They are taking on more responsibilities in Miami, they are working with First Chair players from around the world. They feel the responsibility of being part of the community.”


Add to that the “shelf life” of the players. Not only do they stay no more than six years, but during that time, they can look for other work in other orchestras.


Add to this work with other players which is unparalleled. Now, thanks to the most advanced electronic work, the players can have private lessons with legendary players from orchestras in Cleveland, New York, San Francisco, over to Austria and beyond.


“That was almost a coincidence,” says John Kieser, the Executive Vice President of New World. “We were in Cuba to attend a musical conference, and artists from Salzburg were there at the same time. Within minutes, we had made arrangements to use our advanced tech skills so they could come with our players and communicate with them.”


Yet one must still ask why a Juilliard or Curtis player would need even more training.


“That,” says Blake-Anthony Johnson who came to New World from more experienced orchestras, is simple enough. “I was trained with many teachers, I chose my own way of doing things. But when I can wake up here in Miami, going into a screening room, and begin talking with the First Chair Cello of the Cleveland Orchestra, and he shows me a special fingering which allows me to play more notes easier. Or a way of bowing, for sounds that I couldn’t have imagined...


“Well, no guarantee that I’ll take that advice. But it broadens, it augments my whole experience.”


“And that broadening of experience,” says Maestro Thomas, “applies to everybody on the staff here, including myself.”


(Tomorrow: What New World Symphony means to the international community)


Harry Rolnick

 

 

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