Rebuilding Beethoven

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

NWS isn't the region's only symphony orchestra. The Miami Philharmonic, created in 1966, became the Florida Philharmonic in 1977. It closed for several years in 1982 after labor problems arose. By the time Joseph Leavitt, a retired manager for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, re-created the Philharmonic in 1985 by merging the Fort Lauderdale Symphony, the Broward-based South Florida Symphony, and smaller groups, the seed of NWS had already been planted.

The man most responsible for New World's success is Los Angeles native Tilson Thomas. Long before its inception in 1987, the fantasy swirled in his head. It took shape while Tilson Thomas acquired international acclaim as the young conductor of the Boston Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic in the Seventies and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the early Eighties. He met many outstanding young musicians at summer festivals in places like Massachusetts's Tanglewood and Virginia's Great Woods, which are havens for music school graduates seeking permanent jobs. "I would say, 'What are you going to do next year?' and they would really have no idea," he recounts. "They'd say, 'Well maybe I'll go to grad school or maybe I'll try and do some freelancing or whatever.' Some of those people wound up delivering pizzas." He imagined an orchestra that would provide an alternative, a venue for them to keep what he terms their "standard of perfection" and "competitive edge" while looking for a full-time position.

Of course, in addition to a noble idea and an ample supply of young musicians willing to work for low wages, Tilson Thomas needed two other things: a good location and a lot of money. The solution to both was delivered in 1987 by a very wealthy Miami resident, Carnival Cruise Lines Chairman Ted Arison, who wanted to support classical music in the Miami area. Arison established a $14 million endowment that set America's orchestral academy in motion.

"It's a miracle that it's been done," marvels Steven Mackey, a 42-year-old Princeton University music professor. NWS recently performed one of Mackey's works, Eating Greens, at Lincoln Theatre. "I mean, this is a high-class operation here. To have a first-rate orchestra, a great administrative staff, a great artistic director, guest conductors coming in, and players who are paid -- man, that doesn't come cheap!"

NWS's CEO Chris Dunsworth, who took the job in 1991 after a similar stint with the Chicago Symphony, says he receives many phone calls from people interested in replicating the NWS miracle. Fat chance. "I tell them, 'First off, find yourself a billionaire and then find yourself the number-one conductor in the country," he gloats. "And then you bring those two together, and you might be able to do it."

NWS costs roughly eight million dollars a year to operate. Funds from Arison's endowment supply about three-fourths of that. Only eight percent of NWS's revenue comes from ticket sales. That is a result of the relatively small size of the Lincoln Theatre and a relatively sparse concert schedule. (Most symphony orchestras raise 40 to 50 percent of their budget from the box office.) NWS also gets a little government support. The National Endowment for the Arts came through with a $50,000 grant this year after providing nothing last year and $20,000 annually in 1995 and 1996. The orchestra's development department must raise most of the remaining two to three million dollars.

Along with the Florida Philharmonic, the Florida Grand Opera, and the Miami City Ballet, NWS will be a mainstay of the planned $244 million performing arts center scheduled to open on Biscayne Boulevard in 2002. But the NWS has a hidden role on a much vaster stage. "We're fortunate that [the orchestra] is in Miami, but it is more than Miami's orchestra. It's really a resource for the whole country," observes William Hipp, dean of the University of Miami's music school. "It certainly is a good deal for the music world to have the New World Symphony out there," says Charles Olton, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League in Washington, D.C. "It is playing a very, very important role, and symphony orchestras all over the country benefit from that."

Indeed, NWS selflessly sends its alumni to achieve full maturity elsewhere. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, about 7000 young graduates from music schools chase some 250 to 350 jobs with major symphony orchestras each year. But more than half of NWS's 1997-98 graduates scored positions.

Of the NWS musicians to depart this past year, six won full-time jobs in one of the nation's top twenty orchestras, including Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. Nine others went to second-tier symphonies, such as Buffalo, San Antonio, Jacksonville, and the Florida Philharmonic. Twenty secured jobs with smaller-budget orchestras, while others work as substitutes and continue to seek permanent employment. Others went off to teach music, study political science, or, in one case, practice acupuncture.

NWS alumni are moving up the ranks: Fifty-three percent of the 394 former NWS musicians now hold positions in the nation's top 40 orchestras, up from forty-five percent in 1994. Among those in leadership roles is William Eddins, a pianist who left the NWS in 1989 and is now associate conductor of the Chicago Symphony. Other high-ranking graduates include flutist Catherine Ransom of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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