Rebuilding Beethoven

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

Such chronic departures would be enough to fray the nerves of any conductor. Though Tilson Thomas wants to lose his best musicians, he acknowledges that the departures are not good for NWS's sound. Honing an orchestra with so many new members can be exasperating. "It is a conundrum that our great success in placing these young musicians [in other orchestras] leads sometimes to a sense of frustration, because we'll have a great team of people working together, and then all at once they're in far-flung places doing wonderful things, and we have to reassemble the team," Tilson Thomas notes.

"It will always be a dynamic, energetic, technically brilliant orchestra, but it will not achieve the musical maturity that a Florida Philharmonic will," says the University of Miami's Hipp. Musical maturity means "expressiveness, phrasing, musicality," he explains. Then he adds diplomatically: "That's not a put-down of the New World Symphony. That's just a factor of age and experience."

The NWS is a lush oasis for conservatory graduates compared to unemployment or substituting for full-time orchestra members. Though the pay is a pittance by industry standards, 750 applicants auditioned last year for about 30 NWS openings. Salaries at the nation's major symphonies vary widely, from $25,000 to more than $100,000. NWS musicians receive a mere $350 per week for 35 weeks, or about $12,000 per year. "It is definitely not a union orchestra," chuckles Jeff Tomberg, a former NWS tuba player who is now a contract administrator at the American Federation of Musicians, a New York City-based union. "It was nice to have the weekly stipend," he says. "In that sense, it's not as bad as the alternative." Other NWS alumni state flatly that NWS executives should pay the musicians a lot more. "Fifty thousand dollars a year would be nice," suggests Reist.

"These people are devoted to an art form and they are going through this kind of fellowship experience," observes Olton. "Hopefully most of them will graduate into jobs that will pay them much more of a living wage."

But NWS players enjoy many perks. They live rent-free at the NWS-owned hotels on 21st Street in Miami Beach. They receive regular coaching from top-notch musicians, including those from the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which the NWS pays to fly in for several days at a time. Each week presents a jam-packed schedule of practice sessions, drills with coaches, rehearsals, performances, and -- most daunting of all -- preparation for auditions.

"Basically they train you to get an amazing position in some great orchestra," exults Valerie Chermiset, a 25-year-old flute player from Belgium, one of fifteen musicians from outside the United States. Others come from Kazakhstan, Syria, Israel, Romania, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and England. A graduate of the Conservatoire du Paris and Yale University, Chermiset moved to Miami from New York City this year. "When you are a freelance musician in the city you have to rush from gig to gig and sometimes you have to prostitute yourself just for the money. Sometimes it's not good music." But at NWS, she says, the musicians are enthusiastic, they get to work with Tilson Thomas, they receive excellent training, and the weather is beautiful. "We're spoiled," confesses violinist Samuel Thompson, a 28-year-old graduate of Rice University who arrived in Miami for a NWS slot in September.

In this paradise, however, the clock is ticking. NWS musicians must inevitably march into one of the country's most hostile job markets.

In the latter Twentieth Century, orchestra members must not only be outstanding musicians but also fearless orators. NWS's strategy to capture and expand audiences involves providing more intimate, engaging, and interactive concerts. Several musicians are designated for a "schmooze squad" each concert. During intermissions they mingle with the audience in the lobby or out on Lincoln Road.

Building on the intimacy theme, NWS offers a series called Musical Xchanges, solo or small ensemble concerts in which the musicians speak to the audience before playing. NWS chamber groups have performed in benefactors' homes from Miami to Monaco. Last month a chamber ensemble played at the University of Pennsylvania's alumni club in New York City. "It's kind of like breaking down the barriers between the audience and the musician," exclaims William Vaughan, NWS's vice president of development and marketing. "And I tell these musicians, You've got to play beautifully, but that's only one part of it. Afterwards you're going to have to sit down and talk to these people!" If there's money to be raised, Vaughan helps select the ensemble members. "I want to make sure we've got people who are good schmoozers. So it's a bit of a balancing act and the music has to come first."

Many NWS musicians seem to agree that there is a need to mingle and amuse. "That's a skill we all need to learn because whenever we get into an orchestra that doesn't have a lot of money, we're going to have to do it and do it really well," says violinist Bowers.

At about eight-thirty on a Thursday night, NWS's burly bassoon player, Chris Marshall, is standing alone on the Lincoln Theatre stage, looking out over rows of empty seats. The 27-year-old from Hurst, Texas, is here to rehearse for a duet, the Sonata in G Major for Bassoon and Piano by Camille Saint-Saëns, which is on the next night's bill for a Musical Xchange. He's a bit nervous, not about playing before hundreds of people but about talking to them. He has to introduce the piece. "What did you say last night? I liked how you said it," he questions a woman in the front row. The woman, in a maroon pantsuit and a flowery silk tunic, is Janet Bookspan. She is one of the NWS's luxuries, a New York City-based opera director who flies down several times a season to serve as drama coach.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets