Monday, January 24, 2011

Michael Tilson Thomas and Frank Gehry: A classical experiment

New World Center concert hall
By Barry Johnson

The Frank Gehry-designed home for the New World Symphony in Miami opens Wednesday night, a concert hall that updates the Bauhaus idea of the Total Theater for the Age of the Internet. Flexible, futuristic, multi-purpose and multi-media, it demolishes the boundary between what happens inside the  building and the outside world.

If you think that the key to bringing classical music (however we may define it) back to the center of contemporary culture is to stage it in the most exciting way possible, the same way Cirque du Soleil updated the old circus, then this is the $160 million experiment for you. (Cirque's Stefan DeWilde designed the lighting for the new building, in fact.)

Here are a few features:
  • A 756-seat main theater, almost in the round, with giant "sails" on which the latest HD videos can be projected.
  • A Gehry "jumble" of more than 30 rehearsal and performance studios in which smaller, more informal recitals can be staged.
  • A rehearsal hall situated to encourage visitors to the 2.5 acre park outside the building to enter and listen to the music in the making.
  • A wall-projection system embedded in that park that will broadcast the work inside onto a 7000-square-foot screen on the facade -- de facto outdoor concerts, produced inside.
  • The latest, fastest internet connections to make it possible to create "virtual" concerts with far-flung musicians along with master classes for students around the world. (The New World Symphony is a student orchestra.)
The virtual tour offered by the Miami Herald is well worth the time. Gehry's building looks great; the acoustics (in the hands of Yasuhisa Toyota) promise to be sublime; and the forward thrust of the project's program couldn't be more clear.

That program is driven by Michael Tilson Thomas, who founded and leads the New World Symphony  and is also the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Tilson Thomas's thinking about how to extend complex musical ideas, effects and experiences into the general public couldn't be more progressive.  Take a look at the San Francisco Symphony's website to get an idea for the programming (quite adventurous by symphony standards) and the outreach (which seems every bit as important as the music itself).

Although I have my doubts about this experiment, Tilson Thomas's involvement makes me think it just might work. Here are two key paragraphs from the Miami Herald article:
"Everything about this building is new -- the spaces, the way they work, the way they relate to the audience, the presence of the concerts on the skin of the building," Tilson Thomas says. "All these things are reflective of new thinking about what the performing arts, especially classical music performing arts, can be, and how they can be shared.

"I know that it's probably going to delight and outrage people. Sometimes people say to me, 'Well, exactly what are you planning to do there?' And I laugh and say, 'But that's kind of the point. We don't exactly know.'"
That's exactly the right spirit. As he suggests later in the same article, the building will reach its fullest potential when a new generation arrives, one native to the Internet.

So, what reservations? Gehry and Tilson Thomas have created a laboratory/studio that is perfect for sending imagery and sound to the rest of the world (and receiving it, too, for that matter). But let's say that a city, a little like Portland, Oregon, can receive the latest, newest, most advanced multi-media extravaganzas from Miami. We already can see and hear broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Symphony, and presumably more are on the way.  It's unclear what the effect of this will be on the local culture. Does it put our local classical music artists at risk?  What are the long-term effects of  "virtual" experiences, if they come to supplant actual ones? Once enmeshed in multi-media worlds, will our ability to focus on the music specifically erode -- and with it the complexity of the music over time? Will the personal creative space that music feeds close down from the onslaught?

One more. Will the capital-intensive new hall become the greatest desire of symphonies all around the country? Well, maybe it already is, but will this increase that desire?  Because I'm not sure that's the way to spend the money (even if it can be raised). I believe classical music (a broad term for me, which really just suggests musical complexity) is involved in guerrilla war against a dominant culture that directs us toward ever-emptier spectacles.

The way to win may be to make the appeal at the neighborhood level: You don't have to plug into your computer or drive great distances to hear classical music -- you just drop in at the neighborhood music center, where you can take a class (or pick up your child taking a class), listen to a lecture, join a quartet or listen to music by professional musicians. And sometimes, appetite whetted, you need the full-on experience of a live opera or symphony or brilliant touring chamber group.  So participatory and educational -- the audience as more than simple receptors.

Of course, Tilson Thomas's approach in San Francisco and Miami has all sorts of ways to engage its specific local community.  And the multi-media/internet approach may create new audiences, new classical music fans, who will be moved to attend local manifestations of classical music. But will they then be disappointed when four musicians show up with a Beethoven quartet in their pockets and not even a power point presentation to project on the wall behind them?

The New World Center experiment is worth running, though. If this is the future, it's worth finding that out sooner rather than later. If it's adaptable to local conditions, we need to find out. If it feeds our needs for experiences that stretch our ideas about what music can do, feel like, suggest to the rest of our lives, then we'll act accordingly. I think just about everyone with a stake in classical music (musicians, composers, administrators, audiences) will be watching the results closely.


The Washington Post examines the architecture of the Center. The article concludes:
"If this model prevails, much will be lost. There was dignity to the old orchestral concert - its rituals and formality, its basic offer of a private aesthetic journey through the abstract landscape of pure sound. The grand old orchestral halls that contained this ritual cannot and should not be adapted to do what the New World Symphony is doing. But Gehry's concert hall is convincing even to a skeptic. There is hope for this music yet, in a future very different from, but not worse than, the past, and architecture will be fundamental to finding the way."
 Nicolai Ouroussoff's rave in the New York Times.

Christopher Hawthorne's review in the LA Times is colored by the experience of Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA.