Rebuilding Beethoven

The New World Symphony hopes to start a classical music revolution with a bunch of kids and a big idea

On one of those brilliant aqua-hued Miami Beach afternoons, 28-year-old Joel Reist is 25 feet high, wrapped around a thin but sturdy royal palm. The tree towers over a large open-air patio area surrounded by the Plymouth and Ansonia hotels. Reist is hanging a string of tiny Christmas bulbs as two buddies look on. They are decorating for the night's big event: an outdoor bash. By the pool, Bill McDevitt, age 24, is patching his cracked surfboard.

But before the party, Reist, McDevitt, and about 80 other young people have a date on Lincoln Road. They will attend the New World Symphony's (NWS) 1998 season opener at the Lincoln Theatre. Reist and McDevitt won't be in the audience, however. They'll be onstage in the bass section, right behind their cello-playing neighbors. During the next few hours, they and their peers will depart the hotels, where most of the NWS musicians live, and trickle over to the theater on foot, bike, and Rollerblades.

A half-hour before the 8:00 p.m. performance, 26-year-old violinist Zeneba Bowers is lying sideways on a futon couch next to a soda machine in the musicians' lounge. "I feel like a boneless chicken," she moans. She's a bit too relaxed from the three Excedrins she's taken for a sore neck. "I slept on one of these freakin' futons last night," she curses. Emanating from a carpeted hallway are the muffled sounds of string players and percussionists, who have sealed themselves in practice rooms.

Ten minutes before showtime: Violinist Bassam Nashawati is cruising down Lincoln Road on Rollerblades. He curves and comes to a stop at the glass doors of the NWS staff entrance, removes his skates while sitting on a chair inside the door, and rushes in to warm up. In the green room behind the stage, musicians are hurrying in and out, fixing their hair and makeup in front of wall-sized mirrors, and stepping around instrument cases on the floor.

The chaos becomes harmony when conductor and NWS founder Michael Tilson Thomas mounts the podium and waves his baton, and the musicians fuse into one big efficient, churning musical machine. The opening number is a Tilson Thomas composition called Agnegram, followed by Franz Liszt's Prometheus, and Gustav Mahler's Symphony no. 1. In their formal black attire, the orchestra members look and sound world class even though the average age of the musicians is just 24 years old. They are decades younger than most of the fans who pack the 776-seat theater.

Later at the party -- thrown by the bassists and billed as "A Thousand Points of Light: a Kinder, Gentler, Bass Section" -- everyone is on a post-concert high, fueled in many cases by a very strong vodka punch in a bowl on a poolside table. To the amusement of some, people keep colliding with the knee-high candles placed around the patio. Tilson Thomas, jacketless after an opening night gala dinner with wealthy patrons, stops by for a half-hour and chats mainly with the bass players.

Others are telling their behind-the-scenes classical musicians' stories. Rachel Sokolow, a visiting violinist from the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles, recalls an ensemble performance she played in this past summer at Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner's mansion. "He was in black silk pajamas when we got there," she muses. "He's really short and skinny." Bowers, a Philadelphia native with bachelor's and master's degrees from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, is now pumped up. "They pay us like a kid orchestra, but we kick the ass of a lot of orchestras that are much better paid," she proclaims.

At about 3:00 a.m. the party has thinned down to five people and moved to a big deck outside percussionist Gardner Cook's second-floor studio apartment overlooking a courtyard. An ebullient Reist, who has a bachelor's degree from Carnegie Mellon University and a master's from Rice, says "Hey, put this in your article. I'm also a nose flutist." Wearing a Guatemalan-style vest with no shirt underneath, he is blowing into a little wooden flute through his nostril, jamming with the funky techno-sounds of a Deee-Lite CD blasting from Cook's stereo. Deee-Lite soon segues to Led Zeppelin. "We are presently rocking out," Reist declares.

Two days later Reist travels to Tennessee for his new job with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. If all goes according to the symphony's plan, Reist and other NWS alumni will lead a classical music renaissance across America during the next 25 years. According to the NWS strategic plan, entitled "Shaping the 21st-Century Musician," the orchestra will bring about the "repopularization of classical music." It will do this by allowing musicians a maximum of only three years at NWS, after which they must leave. A New York opera director and even a former U.S. Army ranger will train the performers. The pressure is so intense that some of the musicians will turn to an anti-anxiety drug to block out distractions. Moreover this year the orchestra has experienced its biggest changeover in history: Forty-seven musicians, more than half the NWS crew, have either departed or will soon leave.

In a little more than a decade, Miami-Dade County has been transformed from a metropolis sans symphony orchestra to the locus of one of the most ambitious projects in the history of classical music. NWS aims "to prepare highly gifted graduates of distinguished music programs for leadership positions in orchestras and ensemble groups throughout the world," according to its mission statement. One of NWS's "big goals," as stated in its strategic plan, is "to move the percentage of the U.S. population that experiences live classical concerts from .75 percent to 7.5 percent."

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