For 25 years New World Symphony alums are making beautiful music in different ways

September 30, 2012
By David Fleshler

Elizabeth Hainen is principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra and has started a community program to provide harp lessons to public school students.

As an alumnus of the New World Symphony, Zeneba Bowers has established a successful traditional career as assistant principal second violin of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

Not content to serve as lieutenant in a regiment of violins under the command of a conductor, Bowers has also struck out on her own. She founded the ensemble ALIAS, a venture in which musicians donate their services and profits go to charities. Lest one think that the group is once treated more n good intentions than quality music-making, ALIAS performances have reached such a high level that a recent recording has been nominated for a Grammy.

The young violinist promotes the ensemble relentlessly.

“We’re really heavy on the press, and when I say heavy I mean I call them until they get restraining orders,” she said. “There’s still kind of a pull away in the classical field from advertising yourself or marketing. There’s an attitude that you’re dumbing it down, and I just could not disagree with that more.”

Her dual role, her aggressiveness as a promoter and lack of concern for maintaining the often stiffly formal protocols of classical music represents an ideal promoted by the New World Symphony, the Miami Beach ensemble for young conservatory graduates, as it tries to turn out musicians who can make classical music thrive in the 21st century.

The 86-member orchestra, founded in an old movie theater on Lincoln Road, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season with an opening concert of Russian music led by Michael Tilson Thomas Saturday night [Oct. 6]. Yet the South Beach educational institution is also marking its quarter-century with renewed efforts to retool the traditional classical music format as well as helping young musicians find employment during a difficult, quickly changing period for symphony orchestras.

In the past decade, the Florida Philharmonic folded, as did orchestras in Honolulu, Syracuse and other cities. Opera companies in Boston, Baltimore, Orlando and elsewhere closed their doors. The Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the world’s great symphonic ensembles, declared bankruptcy. Audiences continue to grow grayer.

As for the younger generation, they pull music off the web and expect it to be free. The career path of the orchestral musician, never among the easiest ways to make a living in this country, was starting to look as promising as that of newspaper reporter or Blockbuster video store manager.

“That’s very much on everybody’s mind here,” said Howard Herring, the New World Symphony’s president and chief executive officer. “We’ve seen orchestras go out of business. We’ve seen orchestras step back in terms of number of weeks and we’ve certainly seen salary decreases. We actually think that the New World Symphony is guiding our fellows to a place where instead of taking a negative approach to why it isn’t working, assess your talents, look to your responsibilities and then be prepared to represent the art form both as a great player and as a member of your community.”

With its high-tech new hall, the orchestra is experimenting with alternatives to the traditional full-length concert. It trains its young musicians in how to engage with audiences in a more informal, contemporary manner. They are coached in how to speak to audiences, how to talk to second-grade classes, how to be interviewed on the radio and mingle with donors.

“I think in the whole music profession there’s this idea that this is such a great tradition, and the future of the tradition depends on reimagining it and revivifying it,” said Tilson Thomas, the orchestra’s founder, artistic director and dominant personality, who is also music director of the San Francisco Symphony.

“This has to come from giving young people the opportunity to be part of that process. Not only are people focusing on the training that gives them the maximum competitive edge to go after these big orchestral jobs, but also they’re thinking of other opportunities of working in music. I think making people realize that if you really love music and you want to create an interesting life for yourself that there are a number of ways of doing that, not necessarily the traditional paths, and that New World enables you to explore some of those.”

Katie Wyatt

Among those choosing a non-traditional path is violist Katie Wyatt, who labored for years at her instrument in order to play in an orchestra. But after traveling to South America and seeing Venezuela’s famous El Sistema classical music program for poor children, she returned for her second season at New World with new ideas of what she wanted to do. “My mind was made up that I was going to do more than take orchestra auditions, that I wanted to shape the way that people care about music in their community,” she said.

She called her teacher, Robert Vernon, principal viola of the Cleveland Orchestra, in tears. “I thought I was failing him,” she said. “I called him and said ‘I’m so sorry. You’ve invested so much in me as a viola player, so much time preparing all this repertoire for the auditions, and now I really think that what I want to do is be a leader in music and social change,’” she said.

“He said, ‘Katie, knock it off. Everything that we’ve been preparing you for has led you to this day. All of the passion that you have for music and the way that it has changed your life you will share with others and inspire others and be excellent on the job.’”

Wyatt went on to found KidZNotes, an organization that provides free instruments, music lessons and ensemble training to poor children in Durham, North Carolina. This school year, the program will enroll 200 children. “I wanted to shape how music could build a community for the good,” she said.

Tilson Thomas founded New World in 1987 at the old Lincoln Theater—home at the time to a colony of feral cats—with the backing of the late Carnival Cruise Lines founder Ted Arison. Aided by Arison’s generous financial backing, Tilson Thomas’ prestige and the abundance of conservatory graduates chasing a tiny number of jobs, the orchestra quickly established itself as one of Florida’s top performing arts organizations.

Since that time, South Beach lost some of the edgy allure that had originally inspired fashion photographers to pose models against decaying Art Deco hotels. And as Lincoln Road settled into a comfortable existence as a place for dining, strolling and shopping, the New World Symphony left its drab hall, with its rabbit warren of practice rooms and offices, for a futuristic symphonic Taj Mahal designed by the architect Frank Gehry, with the latest in sound and video systems, auxiliary stages and Internet-connected practice rooms.

Among the traditional elements of the classical music experience that New World has sought to change is the stuffy formality of orchestral performances, which begin at a set point in the evening, require a ticket purchased in advance and consist of a pretty standard format of overtures, concertos and symphonies that would have been familiar to anyone attending a concert in the 1920s.

Since moving into its new hall, the orchestra has experimented with shorter, alternative concert formats intended to attract casual strollers in the Lincoln Road neighborhood in the manner of an art gallery. By the hard data collected so far, the innovative formats did exactly what they were intended to do: Bring in newcomers to the New World Symphony.

Herring reels off the numbers: For 30-minute concerts performed a few times a night, 60 percent of the audience was new to New World (or “new to the database,” as he puts it). For the Pulse concerts, in which lights are lowered and the orchestra performs a mix of club music and classical, it’s 40 percent. For short-but-substantial 60-minute concerts, it’s 25 percent. The concerts projected on the hall’s outdoor wall in front of picnickers in the adjacent city park attract an average of 1,500 people per concert, of which about half are new.

These newcomers are now targets of the orchestra’s marketing machine, starting with mail and email pitches, with possible follow-up phone calls. “We want to bring those people back,” he said.

Of New World’s 900 or so alumni, the largest number have taken positions in American orchestras. Among these are the Boston Symphony with six alumni, the Chicago Symphony with three, the Metropolitan Opera with three, the San Francisco Symphony with 10 and the Cleveland Orchestra with 11. Employing the largest number is the Kansas City Symphony – dubbed “New World Symphony West”—-with a whopping 23, more than one fourth of its roster.

New World wouldn’t be successful in placing alumni in major orchestras if it just turned out PR-minded musical entrepreneurs. Achieving mastery of the horn, cello or clarinet to the level demanded by a top orchestra requires a level of commitment and discipline seen in few professional fields. At the Cleveland Orchestra, for example, everything depends on an audition of difficult solo works and excerpts from the orchestral literature, with the first round conducted behind a screen. There are no interviews. Such soft skills as the ability to speak to an elementary school class count for exactly zero.

“We have a very rigorous audition process,” said Gary Ginstling, the Cleveland Orchestra’s general manager and a clarinet alumnus of New World. “It’s very traditional as far as orchestras go. There’s no doubt in Cleveland that we’re looking for musicians that are absolutely at the top of their field on their instrument.”

Yet once they’re in, he said, the Cleveland Orchestra can certainly utilize their community relations skills. “We’re in a city that’s challenging economically, and the population is declining, so we’re trying to find ways to connect the orchestra with a larger group of people from northeast Ohio,” he said. “We’ve really worked to connect our musicians with our audiences closer and giving them a chance to speak from the stage and engage with our donors and members of the public, humanizing and personalizing the members of the orchestra.”

The desire to make orchestral musicians an active part of their community has long been an essential part of the New World Symphony’s DNA. The harpist Elizabeth Hainen joined New World in its second year, 1988. Her memories include working on Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (and hanging out at the pool) with Leonard Bernstein, whose advocacy of Mahler helped raise the composer’s work to the leading position it holds today. She went on to what for most New World members would be a dream job: principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which despite its financial troubles, continues to make great music as one of the nation’s great ensembles.

But in addition to her orchestral work, solo career and teaching responsibilities as chair of harp studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, she has established a non-profit group that provides harp lessons and access to harps for public school students.

“At the New World Symphony they gave us a lot of seminars and coaching, and it always made you very aware of where you came from,” she said. “So you really feel, when you’re given such a gift as a big position like Philly, that I need to do something, I need to give back. It’s probably the most rewarding thing that I do.”

This season 31 new fellows, selected from more than 1,200 graduates of music conservatories, arrived in South Beach. They moved into small furnished apartments in two renovated hotels. Each receives a weekly stipend of $450. During the year they will receive private lessons from visiting members of leading orchestras, undergo training in dealing with the public, learn from psychologists how to handle auditions and work with contemporary composers.

The heart of the program is a full concert schedule, a fast-paced series of concerts that will throw many of them into the world of performing orchestral musician for the first time in music spanning the early Baroque to contemporary premieres. The musicians will perform under Tilson Thomas as well as a variety of well-known conductors from around the world this season, including Stéphane Denève, Susanna Mälkki, Matthias Pintscher and composer John Adams.

In addition to the value and excitement of working with such top rank conductors, the typical New World fellow today is faced with two roles and an array of choices: the thrill of being part of the massed forces of a superb orchestra along with somehow carving out a career and achieving one’s personal career goals.

Amos Fayette

“I would love to play in an orchestra, but I’d like to do a little bit of everything,” said violinist Amos Fayette, who is now entering his second season with New World. Among the highlights of his first season, Fayette mentioned both the late-night Pulse concerts, and the performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with Tilson Thomas.

“For me this was a very meaningful experience, exploring Mahler with someone who’s a real expert,” he said. “That piece was kind of the culmination of everything we worked on through the year to gel the orchestra and treat the orchestra like a big chamber group.”

Yet Fayette also coached a gifted young violinist through the works of Bach, Mendelssohn and Paganini to the point that she could study with the concert violinist Elmar Oliveira at Lynn University. And he even managed a concert series, coordinating the Musicians’ Forum series, which includes solo, chamber, jazz and pop performances.

“The definition of what it means to be an orchestral player is changing,” he said.

The New World Symphony opens its season 7:30 p.m. Saturday at New World Center in Miami Beach with Stravinsky’s Circus Polka and Petrushka and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. nws.edu; 800-597-3331.


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