Friday, January 28, 2011

Brave New World

The drama in Detroit with the symphony will soon come to a head. What it will be is anyone's guess. This is a no-win situation: by striking for this long (half the subscription season), the musicians have made sure that even if matters return to "normal", it will be next to impossible for the institution to market 2011-12 season as if nothing had happened. Will the present subscribers be given a refund? Why would anyone bother to invest in entertainment that may or may not take place? Management has greatly upset the lives of the musicians. First there was anger and outrage, now desperation. If there were plenty of available well-paying orchestra jobs available elsewhere, only a fool wouldn't try to leave the ship that's taking in water faster than the pumps can get rid of. Unfortunately, a long-time orchestra tutti musician is not going to have an easy time winning an audition. Yes, he or she may have all the routine in the world, but the decreased quality and accuracy of playing is no match to a young person fresh out of one of the top schools. At least with string players, orchestras don't want to hire artists, no matter what they claim. They are after worker bees who are able to play most correctly and who don't possess strong musical ideas of their own, i.e. musical robots. Youth is a big plus as the new hire's health will most likely remain good for many years to come.

But let's move to a much happier topic. Florida's New World Symphony is an anomaly in America's music scene. For over twenty years, it has been a unique place for those who really want to play in an orchestra, a sort or post-graduate school where you get paid something for your work. Since similar institutions are hard to find, the New World can be very selective: the acceptance rate in about 3%, based on the figures available. What makes the orchestra unique is that hardly any other musical group has managed to flourish in Florida. There are plenty of concert halls, one fancier than the next, but they all depend on visitors. As it is common, people rather donate large amounts for a building than for operating costs of an organization. Who needs local entertainment when long-distance groups are waiting to fly in, away from the snow and cold to the balmy beaches of Miami and surrounding areas?

New World Center,  photo by Michael McElroy for the NY Times

Until this point, the New World Symphony hasn't created enough of a local following to warrant using one of the mega-barns. Now matters are quite different: a few days ago they got to open the new New World Center, created by Frank Gehry–Yasuhisa Toyota team. It has a supposedly excellent 750-seat concert hall, small in today's standards but one that brings intimacy between the musicians and their audience. There are excellent auditoriums for a 1000 or fewer listeners all over Europe. America, believing that bigger is better, is sorely lacking in these. Based on initial reports of the venue and its acoustics, I would be surprised if it didn't become a very tempting destination for chamber and other smaller orchestras and well as chamber music groups and recitalists (if there are any left). Clearly not an ideal place to listen to bombastic orchestral works, it might be exactly that for most of the real musical treasures that seldom get performed today, being "cost-ineffective" for a 100+-member group. If I loved alligators, snakes and hurricanes, I could see myself living nearby and becoming a regular visitor to the place, as little as I like the idea of going to concerts.

With a maximum three years allowed in the group, the New World Symphony doesn't have to cope with other orchestras' often unpleasant issues, from union negotiations to tenure. Everyone there is eager to give their best and there is genuine joy and excitement in music-making. I have to think back many decades to remember what that was like. Top music schools have often good orchestras but the students play in them because they have to, a very different setup from the New World. The founder of the institution, Michael Tilson Thomas, is perhaps the best person to train these young orchestra musicians. Mr. Thomas still manages to be true dynamo in spite of his 66 years of age, and is probably a better fit than anyone else in the country for the orchestra transplanted in Miami Beach. Granted, Gustavo Dudamel is exciting to watch, but Michael Tilson Thomas knows better what it is like to be a true American musician.

A new concert hall is always a gamble. Surprisingly few architects and acousticians truly understand the difference between great and adequate. As a large amount of money is spent constructing an auditorium, it is usually praised to high heaven by the media, brainwashing the would-be audience. Sometimes it take a few decades for a child to declare that the emperor has no clothes. Criticism is generally not allowed as long as one of the creators is alive. Sometimes we wish the white elephants, such as the Philharmonic a.k.a. Avery Fisher Hall, would simply go away. This smaller newcomer will probably be treated kindly by future generations. The hall seems to be ready for new directions in music presentation with its built-in multimedia equipment, something that today seems mandatory and inevitable.