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."

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.

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.

Bookspan tells Marshall she doesn't recall what she said last night. But that's not true. It's a strategem. She wants him to remember, or invent something else. That way the words will sound genuine when he speaks to the audience. "I want it simple. I want it warm and inviting. I want the enthusiasm and the energy and the warmth that you naturally have," Bookspan demands. She gets him to condense his introductory spiel to four points.

After Marshall rehearses the sonata, Bookspan makes a final suggestion. "Don't prove anything tomorrow night, not to yourself, not to anyone, about this piece. And don't try to impress anyone, including yourself most of all," she admonishes. "As your main goal, just share it with us."

Marshall walks onto the stage the next night with his bassoon and looks out at an auditorium full of people. He does not seem nervous at all. "I guess I'm representing what I'm going to call the sentimental portion of the show," he begins. "I just got back from Buffalo, and I had brought a leaf to prove to you that fall does actually exist. But I forgot it," he continues, feigning sheepishness. "If you get a chance to go up there, I highly recommend it." He gets a few chuckles and smiles confidently. The big laugh is still to come. While pianist Michael Linville settles on his bench, Marshall plays a quick scale, then turns to the audience. "Thank you, thank you," he quips, as if that were the piece. Loud chuckles. He and Linville float through the sonata seemingly without effort. The audience claps vigorously.

The show is stolen, however, by the next act. The stage fades to darkness, and from the loudspeakers two women's voices cackle phrases like "a stench is in the air, the funk of 40,000 years." Violists Rene Reder and Jennifer Snyder frantically wrote and taped the introduction earlier that day. Faces painted white and capes streaming from their shoulders, they sprint onto the dark stage and play an eerie, frenetic, scratchy duet called Viola Zombie.

The future leaders of the classical music revolution receive more than acting lessons. The NWS also prepares them for the musical equivalent of combat: the audition. Successful tryouts are key to the NWS mission. When a performer is onstage with 80 other musicians, there is strength and comfort in numbers. But terror can strike when one faces a scrupulous, heartless panel of judges who await one false note.

"As far as I'm concerned, an audition is a fight. And the better you prepare for that fight, the less you'll be bleeding when you come out." That is Don Greene, wearing a crisp, light-blue oxford shirt and tie, talking to about 30 NWS musicians seated in chairs on the Lincoln Theatre stage one September morning. Greene, a former U.S. Army ranger with a doctorate in sports psychology, advised U.S. Olympic divers including Greg Louganis, Kent Ferguson, and Michelle Mitchell during the 1984 and 1988 competitions. He calls the basic element of his technique "centering," which involves meditation, mental rehearsal, and positive thoughts. He tells the NWS musicians this regimen helped Louganis recover after gashing his head on the board during the three-meter springboard event at the 1988 games. Louganis, he notes, earned a gold medal.

"That's what Louganis did: He centered before the next dive and rather than thinking, 'I hope I don't hit my head again,' which is not a good thought, he imagined what he needed to do."

For the past five years, Greene has worked almost exclusively with classical musicians, first at the Syracuse Symphony, then at New York's Juilliard School of Music, and now at NWS. He tells his students that with practice, they will be able to work magic in mid-audition. "You'll be able to do it in less than three seconds. To change your physical tension, to change your focus, and to give you the right thought going into the next piece," he says. "After you play the first excerpt in the audition and they say, 'Thank you very much, now we want you to play the next,' instead of going: 'Why did they pick that? I don't like that piece,' and tightening up and setting yourself up to play it wrong, [you will use] a quick strategy to get your focus back, to get your body relaxed, and to get yourself on target to play the next passage well."

Greene directs his students to stand up, gaze at a point on the floor, and take deep breaths. He instructs them to imagine their center of gravity: "It's about three inches below your navel and three inches under the surface."

Twenty of the NWS musicians Greene coached last season, during his first stint at NWS, won jobs. Bassist Reist believes Greene's teachings were crucial to winning his position with the Nashville Symphony. "A lot of people kind of sabotage themselves at auditions," he says. At Greene's urging, he reduced the pressure by not expecting to play perfectly. He loaded up on carbohydrates. He repeated things like: "I'm going to play well, I'm going to play well." He rehearsed mentally. "I always knew it was important, but I never knew it had such an impact," he says, still amazed.

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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