Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Discovering a New World in Miami Beach

Composer Ted Hearne and videographer Jonathan David Kane’s Miami in Movements couldn’t have happened anywhere but at South Beach’s New World Center, for more than just the site-specific reasons.

The work was presented in a revised form on February 3 (after receiving its premiere the previous October) as a part of a concert in New World Symphony’s New Work Series. Composed as a love letter to a city struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, it’s a huge piece of work, employing multiple screens and projectors and an orchestra of some 80 musicians. Witnessing the production in the impressive New World Center theater was something of a double immersion: a weekend in Miami Beach peaking with the remarkable performance.

Opening rather sweetly with swamps, birds and lizards moving across the large, overhead screens, we were soon on the highway traveling in to the city. Within minutes, we were meeting Miamians and hearing them tell their tales, their prerecorded voices threaded into the live music. The score was conceived to complement, not overwhelm, and it seemed as if there was so much information already being presented that Hearne didn’t need to resort to the sensory overload he often favors. What he wrote was effective, evocative soundtrack music, themes befitting the beauty and the bustle of a diverse and growing city.

Like the film, the orchestra was physically fragmented, with at one point a brass band appearing above the audience on the highest of the four smaller stages that ring the room. They built an unexpected cacophony along with the orchestra: layered, orchestral loops and slapped evoking the electo patterning of dance music while on screen people danced—ballet, jazz, hip hop, Latin, even fire dance. At these moments, when the music was about music, it became the most effective.

Neither, the movies nor the music of Miami in Movements would stand alone, nor were they meant to. What Hearne and Kane have crafted is interdisciplinary and interdependent, a time capsule of the growing metropolis that likes to call itself “the magic city.”

Miami in Movements occupied the final portion of the February 3 program, which was divided into three sections with an interval between each, allowing for reconfigurations of the flexible stage in the multi-faceted, 756-seat theater. The first part of the program was given over to sections of NWS co-founder, artistic director conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’s Glimpses of the Big Picture, an in-progress musical memoir. With three grand pianos and an electric bass guitar, the orchestra bore plenty of muscle, although most of the music was fairly restrained behind Tilson Thomas’s reading of his own anecdotal texts. A melancholy solo piano, often with left and right hands in isolation, supported the first section, the pianist shot dramatically from above and projected behind the stage while Tilson Thomas recited from a podium. Light and enjoyable music, reminiscent of a Leonard Bernstein score, supported the narrator’s move to New York City in the late 1970s, a surreal dream about an auction house and adventures in dog walking. The middle section of the program featured a rather beleaguered one-act play about a recluse and the imaginary musicians who provided his life soundtrack.

The Cultural Tourist soon learns that Miami Beach is a separate municipality from Miami, but also that in local parlance, all 1,898 square miles of Dade County count as Miami. The city is a growing metropolis, in recent years building an international reputation as a hub for Latin and Caribbean art, attracting Chinese and Russian investment. It’s a place where no one is indigenous —as native Miamian Jonathan David Kane pointed out in a press meeting—built on a swamp and populated by numerous transient cultures.

It’s also easy, at least for the Northeastern breed of the Cultural Tourist, to assume that Miami is all beach volleyball and neon-colored drinks. But it’s the host city of the influential Art Basel America, a major event on the national arts calendar. The city’s Nu Deco Ensemble is a chamber orchestra dedicated to 20th and 21st century works. Together, Miami and Miami Beach boast beautiful examples of Deco and modern architecture, impressive museums. Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts also receives accolades for its design, but the New World Center across Biscayne Bay is no less impressive.

Within the center’s Frank Gehry—designed walls, the students who comprise the New World Symphony orchestra and center work in three-year fellowships, specializing in performance, conducting archiving and engineering.  Beyond the opportunity to prepare and perform works like Miami in Movements, the performance fellows get experience in community engagement, audition preparation, speaking onstage and on-camera and entrepreneurship (as well as receiving housing and a livable stipend). The faculty is comprised entirely of visiting professionals, including business instructors from the Kellogg School of Management.

The center is also committed to community engagement and education, with concerts projected in real time on an outside wall. The “Wallcast” system, with 20 outdoor speakers and seating for up to 2,000, is also used for commissioned video murals and popular movies. It’s exciting to visit such a vibrant space, from all appearances committed not just to its programming but to building orchestras and audiences for the future.