Beach Blanket Beethoven
Stacey Glassman, blond and enthusiastic, teetered on a stage by the pool of the Raleigh Hotel in a cotton-candy pink, Marilyn Monroe-inspired halter-dress and heels. Behind her, nine New World Symphony musicians sat or stood according to the demands of their instruments. Most were in their midtwenties and looked their recital best apparently happy to be out of the traditional black-and-white penguin suits for once.
In front of Glassman, or rather spilled out below her across the patio, nearly 500 self-identified young professionals sipped champagne courtesy of Sofia, or vodka cocktails courtesy of Imperia, their gym-toned physiques draped in linen. The gathering was surrounded by jungle foliage, early evening breezes, and a winter sunset on Miami Beach. It seemed a typical evening for the well-heeled and good-looking, until the droning electronic background music was silenced. Then Glassman, director of annual giving at New World, fumbled with the microphone and a party flyer, on which she had written a simple speech.
"I'd like to thank you very much for coming," she proclaimed, smiling, to the crowd, which clapped politely. Tonight's performance, she said, is something new: "classical music meets lo-fi electronica." The evening had also been described, on the e-mailed invitation, as "St. Bartsmeets South Beach." Whatever melding of two worlds it was (Beethoven meets the spray tan?), the event was representative of an interesting experiment: how to sell brainy music to work-hard-play-hard, Red Bull-swilling Miami Beach professionals.
When the Florida Philharmonic declared bankruptcy in May 2003, Miami was left with only one professional orchestra, the New World Symphony. But NWS is really an orchestral academy. Its students (or fellows, as they are known) are young, talented, and housed in a dormlike hotel a short distance from the Lincoln Theatre, where they regularly perform for packed houses.
But in contrast to the youthful nature of the orchestra, most of its donors, as is the case with many classical music institutions, are what fundraisers call "top-heavy." That means old. So in June 2004 Glassman undertook something many arts organizations have found to be a successful way to market their product: She started a fundraising branch targeted to young professionals, called Friends of New World Symphony. Membership begins as low as $250 per year and includes not only tickets to select concerts and name recognition in New World programs but also invitations to "private, members-only events at exclusive Miami hot spots."
Glassman, in other words, took classical music to nightclubs like Mynt and hotels like the Setai, gave it the South Beach marketing treatment, watered the parties with cocktails, and watched her organization grow. In a year and a half, she has amassed 300 Friends. The group's board includes high-profile names like club promoter Alan Roth and Herald social columnist Lesley Abravanel.
But enjoying classical music, unlike looking at most art, demands quiet attention and an extended cell phone hiatus. That is not necessarily attractive to the, um, "bottom-heavy."
Dustin Budish, the 26-year-old violist who arranged the musical performance Sunday, recalled earlier get-togethers in a rueful tone: "Last summer New World Symphony did an event on Palm Island.... A composer wrote a piece of music specifically for it, but it didn't seem to fit. We felt the need for something more energetic. So Stacey proposed mixing classical music with electronic beats."
For Sunday's performance, Budish arranged for nine members of the symphony to cover two songs by Washington, D.C. electronica duo Thievery Corporation accompanied by a DJ. He selected the mellifluous "Resolution" from the album The Richest Man in Babylon, and the Brazilian-influenced "Samba Tranquille" from The Mirror Conspiracy.
"A lot of classical music can be perceived as inaccessible because it's such intelligent, cerebral music," said Budish. "But a young orchestra can do really trendy, different things."
So, was Sunday's audience of more than 500 people there for the music, or for the champagne and the perceived exclusivity? And if the orchestra is making money (all the drinks and venues are donated to the cause of classical music), does any of that matter?
Rene Sagebien, a 37-year-old lawyer who was born in Miami but grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, serves on Friends of New World's executive committee with his wife Lillian. After living in New York for six years, Sagebien said he missed the nightly barrage of cultural activity, and found in New World Symphony some of the dynamic energy of his former home. He thinks every Friends event is different. "At the parties, probably half the people are there because it's a good party with free drinks," he admitted. But at other events, such as classes taught by an international roster of guest conductors and musicians that Friends are invited to observe, "the focus is the music."
Aaron Resnick, who chairs the executive committee, said that proclaiming Miami void of cultural events "is so yesterday's news."
But Budish, who studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the New England Conservatory, paused slightly when asked how he likes it here. "It's kind of different than what I'm used to," he said carefully. Other musicians answered in a similarly noncommittal fashion: "It's different" seemed to be the general consensus.
Sagebien put it this way: "I think there's a lack of things to do here that are as much socially uplifting as culturally uplifting," but, he adds, Friends of New World defies that superficial stereotype.
Introductions and thank-yous dispensed with, Glassman descended from the stage and the performance began. Conversation subsided and attention focused on the dreamy if slightly rough-edged performance. In ten minutes it was over.
"Too short," declared Juliette Dutoit, a 28-year-old native of France in attendance with some friends.
Marian Morgan, another attendee, who gave her age as "old enough" but guaranteed she would always consider herself "both young and professional," confessed disappointment: "As an older young person, I don't think they're giving the audience a chance to relax in to the music," she explained. "It sort of cheapens it into another South Beach thing."
"We wanted to keep the energy up," Budish responded.
By 7:30 p.m. the guests began to depart, passing by a sign that read "Friends of New World Symphony, Private Event" and picking up complimentary gift bags on the way. Inside? Plum-color nail polish by Goldie cosmetics, Smashbox lip gloss, Frizz-Ease hair products, and a subscription card for Friends of New World Symphony.
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