New World Symphony to expand the concert experience with four new works

By David Fleshler

Samuel Carl Adams' "Drift and Providence" is one of four works to be premiered by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Friday night.

With all due respect to Carnegie Hall and Vienna’s Musikverein, even those grand temples of classical music couldn’t handle the event planned this Friday by the New World Symphony.

The performance of four world premieres, video art and poetry will rely on the technology and architectural infrastructure built into the orchestra’s modernist, one-year-old campus in Miami Beach. Using auxiliary stages mounted around the hall, the evening will move without a break from string quartet to orchestral ensemble to wind octet. Huge screens will display rush-hour street scenes from New York City. And a sophisticated electronics and speaker system will allow one composer to use a computer program during the performance to manipulate percussion sounds as they’re being produced.

Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra’s founder and artistic director, said this sort of format-busting evening was what he had in mind when the hall was designed. “Since the building came into existence I’ve been aware of this potential of presenting works for different sized ensemble with little or no time necessary to go from one piece to another,” he said.

“And also I thought the building suggested the kind of experience people have when they go to gallery openings, for example,” he continued. “Very often people will go out whatever night it happens to be in that town to just see what’s in the galleries. They know that the galleries will be open, and they’ll go to see new work, not really knowing who the artists are, but just knowing it will be new work and lots of different styles and lots to think about.”

The typical orchestra presents a world premiere like a cat owner hiding a pill inside a treat: the knotty new work will be safely surrounded by works of Brahms or Mendelssohn, offering the concertgoer some hope of respite after the new piece grinds to a halt.

But this concert will revel in newness, offering four world premieres by the composers Amy Beth Kirsten, Alex Orfaly, Marcos Balter and Samuel Carl Adams. It will also feature a reading by the poet Malachi Black and a video by James Nares.

“The video you’re going to see is an extraordinary piece I saw at Art Basel last time,” Tilson Thomas said. “It involves very, very interesting manipulation of time sense. It’s an extraordinary piece which very vividly and beautifully presents about three and a half minutes of rush-hour on a New York City street. But the time of it is expanded and layered in a most poetic and interesting way, beautiful and thought-provoking.”

A former timpanist with the New World Symphony, the composer Alex Orfaly wrote Divertissement No. 2 for Solo Timpani and Ensemble as a vehicle for the San Francisco Symphony timpanist David Herbert, who will perform it Friday. In working on the piece, Orfaly said, Herbert made two requests: “One, that it be fun, and two that it be groovy.” In addition to the standard timpani set, the work is scored for a new instrument called the “tenor timpani,” consisting of nine smaller drums that extend the instrument’s range. Orfaly said the work should be appealing to listeners on first hearing.

“It’s fairly approachable,” he said. “The music is very ‘film score-ish’. It’s not a hard-core contemporary atonal piece. That’s not what it is.”

Samuel Carl Adams, son of the eminent American composer John Adams, composed his Drift and Providence for an orchestra that includes what he calls “unkempt, industrial percussion instruments” such as sections of pipe and automobile brake drums that will be scraped with pieces of metal. During the performance, he will be at his computer working on the sounds.

“I’m going to be performing the live electronics, amplified percussion, all coming to my computer,” he said. “I’ve developed software to pick out certain pitches and harmonies in real time and isolate them and amplify them and send them through the speakers in the hall.”

If that sounds like a prescription for several minutes of intolerable racket, Adams says it won’t be like that. The percussion to be amplified, filtered and manipulated will generally be quiet, in the mezzo-piano range, he said. And the music will be “very atmospheric,” often tonal, and intended to give the listener the chance to hear familiar tones and motifs with unfamiliar textures and harmonies.

“The core of the music is very simple,” he said. “The first part is almost like blues—very recognizable, tonal, American, expressed in this rich and complex way. There will be a feeling of familiarity. One thing I really intend to express and communicate is a simple melody and harmony, expressed in a complex sound world. Feeling very distant and very close is a feeling we can all recognize.”

He wrote the work with the hall in mind. “Projects like these can’t really be done most places,” he said. “And to have a hall like this and the enthusiasm of these players—I’m really excited about this.”

Tilson Thomas sees this performance as the first of many that will expand the hall’s artistic range. “The goal of what we’re doing with the New World Symphony and what we’re now able to do in our new home suggests that it not only be new music but that it would also be new video, new poetry, and ultimately I hope new dance,” he said. “That it would just be new work in the widest possible sense of the words. And this is the first time we’re trying it out.”

The New World Symphony’s New Work concert takes place Friday at 7:30 p.m. at New World Center in Miami Beach., 800-597-3331.

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Wed Apr 18, 2012
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