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New World Symphony Inaugurates New Home – Review

By Anthony Tommasini

MIAMI BEACH - Many orchestra halls and opera houses are just too big. Even if the acoustics are good, the music can sound far off, and the audience can feel too separated from the performers.

The new home of the acclaimed training ensemble the New World Symphony, on the campus of the New World Center, which opened here, may be the rare orchestra hall that is too small. It doesn't feel too small. Though it seats just 756, the hall, designed by Frank Gehry, has a spacious quality. Groups of seats surround the stage, and the rows are steeply raked so that the space feels tall and airy. Throughout, there are trademark Gehry curved shapes and reflectors painted white, so they look like the sails of a tall ship.

The hall is an intimate place to hear an orchestra. After performing some works Tuesday night at an opening ceremony for the center, the New World Symphony, conducted by its dynamic founder and devoted artistic director, Michael Tilson Thomas, played the official inaugural concert on Wednesday night, with works by Wagner, Thomas Adès and Copland. The acoustics, designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, are certainly lively, bright and enveloping - at times, too enveloping. Mr. Thomas, who worked closely with Mr. Gehry, wanted a space that would bring the audience into proximity with the players. He got his wish. It was inspiring to be so drawn into the performances of these gifted, dedicated musicians, mostly in their mid-20s.

But during some stretches, especially the brassy flourishes of Wagner's Overture to "The Flying Dutchman" and the climaxes of Copland's Third Symphony, which incorporates "Fanfare for the Common Man," the sound of the orchestra was too up-close and overpowering.

Mr. Toyota and his team of acousticians, who also worked with Mr. Gehry on Disney Hall in Los Angeles, are justly acclaimed. The orchestra sound at the New World Center was always, even during fortissimo climaxes, clear. And it was never harsh or hurtful to the ears (unlike the blasting salsa band that entertained people outside the hall after Tuesday night's ceremony). But maybe audiences need a little distance from an orchestra. Too often on Wednesday the climactic bursts from the New World Symphony were nearly blaring.

This problem can probably be fixed. Disney Hall had overly bright acoustics at first, but some tweaking was done, and it now sounds glorious. At the New World Center the stage has nine built-in mechanical risers. The floating acoustical panels near the ceiling are adjustable. The musicians may also have to learn to tailor their playing to their supersensitive new surroundings.

To emphasize the positive, however, this is an exciting place to hear music and a great resource for the city. It will surely become a destination stop for international music lovers.

Mr. Thomas led a crackling account of the stormy Wagner overture. The clarity of the acoustics was a boon to the precise playing. Every note in the rustling violin runs came through, every stroke of the swelling timpani rolls was audible.

The Wagner set the right mood for the premiere of Mr. Adès's "Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra," which was commissioned by the New World Symphony and other orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic. Like Mr. Adès's piano concerto "In Seven Days (Concerto for Piano With Moving Image),"which recently was given its New York premiere by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, "Polaris" incorporates images by the video artist and filmmaker Tal Rosner.

The title refers to the North Star, or Pole Star, around which other stars appear to rotate. For this 15-minute score Mr. Adès has devised an elusive melody that is played in canon by groups of brass instruments in alcoves and on balconies around the hall. All 12 pitches are used, but the notes keep circling back to a magnetic main pitch. While this almost ancient-sounding musical element unfolds, the rest of the orchestra plays murky riffs and skittish passages that evoke watery, gurgling patterns, in drips and droplets.

Mr. Rosner's film, projected on the various sail-like surfaces, explores themes of navigation and separation by depicting two young women who wait on rocky cliffs and wander sandy beaches, looking to the sea, wondering about the sailors who have left them ashore.

Mr. Thomas drew a colorful and commanding performance from the players. One exploding orchestral climax was like a Big Bang, scattering motifs into shards of notes to reveal a lumbering, elemental bass line that gravitationally pulls the music back to earth.

For his Third Symphony, from 1946, Copland was thinking in bold symphonic terms. His bucolic side is here in the calm, wistful opening of the first movement. But in the scherzolike second movement and the episodic slow third movement he comes across as a less-fitful American Mahler, and a feistier, rhythmically fractured Prokofiev. The finale develops the fanfare (written a few years earlier) into contrapuntal and texture complexities.

Copland was a mentor to Mr. Thomas, and no conductor around is better suited to this score. The New World players seemed to realize this, for they gave a terrific performance - honest and tender one moment, vibrant and bustling the next. Yes, the sound was sometimes overpowering. But everyone involved with this new hall expected that adjustments would have to be made.

This program will be repeated on Friday night at the New World Center, Miami Beach; (305) 673-3331, nws.edu.


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