Can Michael Tilson Thomas make classical music cool?

By | January 24th, 2011 | 13 Comments

The New World Symphony's new home -- photo by Moris Moreno, New York Times

On Wednesday, the New World Symphony will perform the opening concert at its new campus in Miami Beach. Designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, the campus centerpiece is a 756-seat concert hall that NWS artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas hopes will do no less than fundamentally transform the general public’s impression of classical music. Put simply: MTT hopes the building will make classical music cool. With this goal, it is no surprise he turned to long-time friend and former babysitter (!) Gehry, who, at 81, is one of the world’s brashest builders and has a track record of turning “Where?” to “THERE” with a single structure (see Bilbao).

Of course, Miami itself is on the map, but classical music is pretty much invisible in terms of its popularity among today’s youth. (Name one contemporary composer.) MTT apparently did not interpret this as evidence of the genre’s irrelevance in the age of Beiber Fever, nor as proof of the deterioration of the contemporary ear. Rather he came to the conclusion that young’ns today would love classical music — maybe even tweet about it (@PGlass *only* five minutes of silence? #weak) — if they ever experienced it.

To this end, Gehry devised a building that the masses can enter without ever walking through the front door. Its facade consists of a large, latticed glass wall that allows passersby to see in and, importantly, NWS musicians to see out. In other words, it isn’t a wall; it’s a window through which MTT hopes the public and his musicians will come to recognize each other as fellow earthlings. Gehry, for his part, no doubt hopes everyone will find a moment to gawk at the design of the lobby, a serene composition of papery practice rooms that somehow appear to be falling apart and coming together at the same time.

The other component of the facade is a plain plaster rectangle onto which NWS plans to project live concerts. From a field in the campus’s new park (designed by Dutch firm West 8), people will be able to enjoy the orchestra’s regular performances at a cost of precisely nothing. In this way, the plaster section of the facade isn’t a wall either; it too is a window through which MTT hopes (lots of hopes …) we will fall in love with classical music.

But let’s say you’re hard of heart. You love your Bieber and no one’s going to tell you the Ninth has anything on “Baby”. You might need to actually enter Gehry’s building and behold its auditorium before you get it through your bang-swept forehead that classical music is not a thing of the past. Fine. Once inside you’ll see the light. I can try to describe the beauty of the space — which MTT aptly describes as a “music meeting house” — but I’ll save myself the sputtering and just show you a picture.

See those sail-like planes billowing from the ceiling? Those are also projection screens, and MTT plans to do very cool things with them. Look:

The above image goes a long way to breaking down my skepticism about MTT’s chances of accomplishing his goal. I mean, that is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. When it comes to classical music, I’m a greatest hits listener at most, but I will attend a concert this year. Which is to say, Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony might get the MTV generation into Mozart after all.


13 Comments on “Can Michael Tilson Thomas make classical music cool?”

  1. 1 Dan Renzi said at 9:31 am on January 24th, 2011:

    The New World Center interior looks different than these architectural illustrations. It’s very colorful, and it is a more intimate space than what it appears to be here (small, but in a good way).

    Although I am surprised that I can’t find any decent photos. I guess everyone thought someone else would take a photo, but no one has?…

  2. 2 Jordan Melnick said at 10:02 am on January 24th, 2011:

    Dan, I took a tour two months ago (approx) and wasn’t allowed to take photos. I think this was the case for pretty much everyone who took a tour pre-opening.

    Everybody, there’s more to say about this building:

    — it’s wired with super-fast Internet2, so NWS fellows will be able to take instruction from master musicians even if they are thousands of miles away
    — it will host “Pulse” nights featuring DJ/composer Mercury Soul to attract a young crowd
    — its auditorium seats are upholstered with a blue, cloud-flecked cloth that it is pretty tacky, as are the lobby’s toothpaste-blue banquettes

    Architecture critics around the country seem enamored of the building (which means Miami Beach can expect more tourists). Here are some good reviews I’ve read.

    “Gehry design plays fanfare for the common man” — NYT

    “Frank Gehry’s New World Center in Miami Beach”, Los Angeles Times

    “Mr. Gehry’s Opus”, Miami Herald

  3. 3 William said at 11:43 am on January 24th, 2011:

    This is fascinating. I want to come home immediately.

  4. 4 Jordan Melnick said at 12:02 pm on January 24th, 2011:

    Yeah, I just hope they open up the space to artists that can really bring us youthies out. Imagine seeing, I dunno, animal collective there.

  5. 5 Brandon M. said at 1:05 pm on January 24th, 2011:

    @Jordan Melnick

    Not to sound musically elitist, but I think the idea is to get younger audiences to appreciate artists that are undervalued by that demographic.

    (As opposed to artists who can already sell out venues more appropriate to their type of sound.)

  6. 6 Jordan Melnick said at 1:28 pm on January 24th, 2011:

    No doubt, but getting kids through the door would help NWS’s cause, even if it wasn’t to listen to classical music. I saw Dirty Projectors at a Boston museum some years back and it changed my perception on the museum as well as the band. If an AC fan saw them at the NWS, they might start to feel a connection to the venue — even a sense of ownership — and be more likely to attend other concerts.

  7. 7 Dan Renzi said at 1:30 pm on January 24th, 2011:

    I believe the park will be a hit with the young folks–the sound speakers enclose half the space, which means the other half is close enough to hear the music, but the people won’t feel obligated to listen. So that will be the more popular half, filled with those who want to say they hung out at orchestra performances without actually doing so.

    Those seats are awful. From a distance the effect is nice, but once you’re there in the seats, it looks like it was made from a blue animal that had mange. Why does everything in Miami have to be “colorful” and “fun”? Had the seats been done in plain black, the effect would’ve been spectacular.

    Regardless–the sound quality is excellent. We were there for a rehearsal, and that little orchestra made some very rich sound.

  8. 8 Jordan Melnick said at 2:02 pm on January 24th, 2011:

    I read somewhere that Gehry used a similar seat design elsewhere, so not sure it was a nod to the Miami aesthetic.

  9. 9 Leah said at 3:03 pm on January 24th, 2011:

    As AWESOME as this new building is, I think part of the reason that classical music fails to get a younger audience out is simply economics. I am a classically trained violinist who went to magnet school for violin and played in orchestra throughout college, yet I’ve never seen the NWS. I will finally be going to a classical performance at the Arsht Center for the very first time next month, a birthday gift. Tickets for classical music concerts are really pricey.

    Of course, price point is not the entire explanation. Classical music people are known for being stuffy, and for being unbending about how classical music “should” sound. Thank goodness there are some wonderful younger classically trained musicians who are willing to break boundaries. See this awesome NPR story on the rise of “Indie Classical.” Venues need to be willing to take risks in order to expand their classical audience. Will this new venue do that?

  10. 10 Jordan Melnick said at 3:34 pm on January 24th, 2011:

    Leah, the NWS gave 20 minute concerts (maybe longer) at its old home, the Lincoln Theater, for $2.50! I think they are planning to reprise the program in the new building. Plus, the projections will be free to attend.

  11. 11 Leah said at 10:44 pm on January 24th, 2011:

    Good to know! I hope they do continue to do that.

    But I also hope that they’ll take more risks at this venue and play out-of-the-box pieces.

  12. 12 Jordan Melnick said at 1:29 am on January 25th, 2011:

    via Redditor Urbano35:

    “Okay so I just called the academy wondering about ticket prices and the nice lady informed me they’re $100 each if you wish to attend any of the three debut performances. However, the third one on Friday is going to be projected at the adjacent park for free! I’m definitely showing up for this.”

    The link for Friday’s concert:

  13. 13 Jordan Melnick said at 10:31 pm on February 7th, 2011:

    Just read this great piece by the New Yorker’s Alex Ross. In the “this is so gay” vignette, we may have an answer to the title of this post.

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