New World Symphony to offer a gallery night with “New Work”

By David Fleshler

Timo Andres' "Tides and Currents" is one of three works that will be premiered by the New World Symphony Saturday night.

Timo Andres’ “Tides and Currents” is one of three works that will be premiered by the New World Symphony Saturday night.

Few artistic events carry as much weight of tradition as performances by symphony orchestras: The dark-suited musicians, the repertoire pillars by Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, the procession of overture, concerto, intermission and symphony.

While Johannes Brahms or Robert Schumann might have blinked at the electric lights and covered their ears at the modern harmonies, little else about a performance in 2016 would surprise them.

When the New World Symphony moved into its new hall in Miami Beach five years ago, its leaders were determined to try alternatives. One example is the concert that will take place Saturday, titled simply “New Work.” There will be nothing on the program by masters of the past. Everything will be a world premiere. No one will go in knowing what to expect and no one will know any more about the music than anyone else.

“The idea is to have it be more like a gallery opening,” said Michael Tilson Thomas, New World’s founder and artistic director. “You don’t even know necessarily what you’re going to see. We love the situation that exists in so many towns where the last Thursday of the month, or whatever day it is, everyone knows that on that day, all the galleries will be open and that new work will be on display. And people just get up and they go out and see new work. And I think it would be such a nice thing to encourage a custom like that in the concert hall.”

New World’s “gallery” will display three works: Tilson Thomas’s setting of a poem by Carl Sandburg; a short play with music; and a composition for two pianos and percussion by a 2016 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music.

Tilson Thomas’s work sets a 1920 poem called Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind that appears an attack on the triumphalism of a rapidly industrializing nation that has just become a world power. The poem reads in part:

Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
And paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.

And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
… and the only listeners left now
… are … the rats … and the lizards.

“Of course, when Sandburg wrote this, it was the absolute height of expansionist, imperial America,” Tilson Thomas said. “Progress, progress, progress. Many of the poems in his Chicago collection are extolling that, exalting that. And at the same time, warning of dangers. I discovered the poem when I was in college. I read the poem at that time and found it tremendously powerful.”

Tilson Thomas’s composing process stretches the meaning of new work. He began the piece 40 years ago, in 1976, during the national celebrations of the Bicentennial. He played it for friends then set it aside, picking it up again in 2003 in Santa Fe and completing it this year. Toward the end of the compositional process, he worked closely with the Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who will sing the premiere Saturday.

Concerts of classical music rarely include dialogue, let along complete dramatic works. But for Saturday’s program, the New World Symphony commissioned a short play with music, handing the assignment to the playwright Lauren Yee and composer Amy Beth Kirsten.

Yee said she was attracted to the project by its very limitations. The orchestra wanted a work that would last just 15 or 20 minutes. There would be only two actors. There would be no set and no props. And so she turned to an idea that had haunted her for years, to portray the world of a blind person making her way in the world, a decision that places sound–a symphony orchestra’s strong suit–at the center of attention.

“There’s nothing for the audience to see, other than the actors and the musicians on stage,” she said in an interview from her home in New York City. “And we’re able to figure out what’s going on around this young woman and what her world looks like through the sound that we’re hearing.

“She–we–kind of has to act as a detective through the whole thing. All the information in the piece comes through sound. It comes through the dialogue, it comes through what the musicians are doing. Hopefully it challenges the audience in a really fun way.”

The resulting play, Stereo | Blind, certainly challenged the orchestra, whose members had to undertake bit parts behind the two main characters. “They had a variety of tasks they were never asked to do in their time playing in the symphony,” she said. “And we’re asking them to be characters and have personalities. They’re going to be moving around, vocalizing different sounds,  and all sorts of different things, and the musicians stepped up.”

Kirsten, who lives in Connecticut, has won praise for adventurous, genre-crossing works that involve music, dance and spoken words. Her contemporary take on the stock characters of commedia dell’arte, commissioned by the ensemble eighth blackbird, was acclaimed by Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, who called it “dark, wild and engrossing.”

The Brooklyn-based composer Timo Andres contributed the opening work, writing it for the unusual combination of two pianos and two percussionists.

“My hangup about writing for percussion is that I think the tendency to be gimmicky is very strong,” said Andres, who was a recent finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music. “[The tendency is] to sort of think of the instruments purely as noisemakers, rather than large instruments composed of many instruments, where each sound has a reason for existing.”

Andres believes composing for percussion amounts to designing a unique instrument from the ground up, with classic instruments such as xylophone or timpani serving as the core around which others are added. His piece Tides and Currents calls for vibraphone, glockenspiel, drums, bells and “a few wackier instruments,” such as a geophone, which is a circular drum filled with metal beads, and a large musical saw.

“Percussionists are kind of the jack-of-all-trades of the orchestra,” he said. “If there’s some sort of odd job that needs to be done, it’s going to be done by a percussionist. So they have these core skills of mallet percussion and timpani and the standard complement of orchestral percussion, but then they have to have this complement of odd-job skills.

“Fitting all that together into the design of the piece is what can make a percussion piece intriguing and exciting or flip over and make it gimmicky.”

Like other composers who have written for South Florida ensembles, he took inspiration from the region’s geography, writing a piece inspired by the region’s relation to the ocean.

“I had been reading about the environmental issues in Miami having to do with water and the encroaching ocean,” he said. “And while I wouldn’t claim that my piece tackles those very real and literally life-threatening issues, it does grow out of the sense of the city being built on water and being very dependent on that.”

The New World Symphony’s “New Work” program takes place 7:30 p.m. Saturday at New World Center in Miami Beach.; 305-673-3331.

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Tue Apr 26, 2016
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