Thursday, July 31, 2014

New World, New Hall

[I'm finally posting this review which I originally wrote for Suite101 now that the text is again mine to do with as I please.]

America's only orchestral academy, the New World Symphony, officially kicked off its new season in January of 2011 by breaking in its brand new concert hall, New World Center, in Miami Beach. And I was there to savor the moment.

We attended the first public concert (there was a private one for donors the night before) and came away knocked out by the one-two punch of performance and concert space. The Frank Gehry-designed structure has been turning heads even before completion. Its innovative and high-tech features seem destined to inspire a reinvention of classical music presentation for the 21st century. Inside, huge "sail" shapes on the walls spread out the sound and double as projection screens for laser and video images. Outside, a 6-story Projection Wall allows the performances to be viewed -- and heard -- from the adjoining two-acre park. Can't get a ticket? No problem!

To support these media capabilities, an entire audio-video production studio hovers over the rear of the concert hall, looking like NASA Mission Control. (For more about the Wallcasts, see my review of the one featuring Mahler's Sixth Symphony.)

None of these bells and whistles overshadows the music, however. Conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas (fondly referred to as MTT), who founded the New World back in 1988, picked up the reins at the podium and got an instant response from his highly-tuned ensemble. From the opening strains of Wagner's Overture to the Flying Dutchman we could tell we were in for a treat.

The sound in this new space is simply electric. Both intimate and expansive, without a bad seat in the house, it offers a degree of clarity and precision sometimes lacking in larger auditoriums. In our case, we were actually seated behind the string section in a bank of benches that can also serve as choral risers. This arena type of seating offers a chance to experience the music as if you are part of the orchestra, right in the thick of the action.

And it's impossible to overstate the abilities of the New World's youthful musicians. Their ensemble playing is impeccable, the brass gutsy, the strings capable of all kinds of sonorities and the strength to stand up against the rest of the instruments.

What would an opening be without a world premier? "Polaris," by Thomas Ad├Ęs, was co-commissioned by the New World and a handful of some of the the best orchestras on the planet. The piece, accompanied by a commissioned film projected on three sides of the hall, challenged both musicians and audience, but it seems we were all up to the challenge. The texture of the sound at the end resembled a combination of a raging torrent of water and a jet of flame -- a sound perhaps never before uttered by any orchestra.

After this, I thought the closing Third Symphony of Aaron Copeland would sound tame by comparison. I was wrong! This work is perhaps one of the most ambitious of the prototypical American composer and demonstrates what it was possible to create even way back in 1946.

The final movement, based on the famous "Fanfare for the Common Man," formed a fitting conclusion to the evening and kicked off a standing ovation that lasted until Tilson-Thomas had to beg to be allowed to go home.

We left too, but can't wait to come back for more.

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