Rebuilding Beethoven

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

Violinist Bowers plans to spend more time learning Greene's techniques. She is in her third and final year at NWS. "My attitude was like the worst he had ever seen because I was just like, 'I suck.' And he was like 'No.' He asked me, 'Do you have any idea why you haven't gotten anywhere in the auditions you've taken?' And I said, 'Because God hates me?'"

When all else fails some NWS musicians revert to another device in the classical musician's handbag: the beta-blocker. Drug companies originally developed beta-blockers such as Inderal to reduce high blood pressure by slowing the heart rate. Professional musicians have used them for years to calm nerves and combat stage fright. "You want to get rid of interference. When money is involved, then you want to do whatever you can. That's a tool you can use," Reist explains. "I mean they're going to pay you a million dollars over the course of a career." But Reist says he would not want to make a habit of using beta-blockers.

Violinist Samuel Thompson first tried them a few years ago at Rice University because he was "terrified" before a solo performance of a Eugene YsaØe sonata. "I walked onstage calm. It was the first time that I walked onstage calm in like four months. And I played, and it was fantastic," he remembers. "And there have been times that I've used them and felt like I could just stop and tell jokes to the audience." He's grown wary, though. "I am starting to think they are not a very good thing anymore. It's easy to get dependent on them."

But others scorn the idea of using them at all. "I don't want to touch that. It's a drug!" exclaims Chermiset. "And why would you do that to your heart?" Bassist-surfer McDevitt, who performs in the local rock band Joy Ride as well as NWS, also avoids them. "I like to play on the edge," he says. "I think it's better to be nervous. It shows that you're alive and well." He will leave NWS in January for the Tenerife Symphony in the Canary Islands.

Charles DeRamus, a third-year bass player at NWS, thinks he is on track to winning an audition this year. The bearded, six-foot-five, affable Georgian was doing Johannes Brahms's Symphony no. 4 with the Houston Symphony (where he occasionally works as a substitute) when he discovered he could fly. "I was playing, and all of a sudden it felt like someone had picked me up and thrown me off a cliff and I was falling," he attests. "But I realized halfway through the piece that I wasn't going to hit the bottom, that I could be in control. It's what musicians are talking about when they say it feels like they are flying." That sensation is really a huge adrenaline rush, he explains. "Instead of letting that adrenaline hinder you, it can give you supernatural powers," DeRamus notes. But he hasn't yet learned to control its mysterious energies. "If I knew completely, I'd have a recording contract with Sony."

NWS executives and Tilson Thomas bank on their ability to find a steady supply of musicians who can fly high enough to win auditions. The NWS strategic plan imagines an orchestra that is really soaring. Besides predicting that NWS will have some 20,000 contributing patrons by the year 2020, the document envisions a New York Times Magazine article written the same year citing its musicians as a major force behind the renaissance of classical music. "We have the New World Symphony to thank," observes the fictitious author, "for the amazing change in the average person's perception of classical music.

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