New World Symphony captures the flavor of Miami in vibrant, multi-media “Movements”

By Lawrence Budmen

The New World Symphony presented "Miami in Movemets" Saturday night at New World Center. Photo: Gregory Reed

The New World Symphony presented “Miami in Movements” Saturday night at New World Center. Photo: Gregory Reed

Long on the cutting edge of multi-media presentation, the New World Symphony took music-video fusion to a whole new level Saturday night with the premiere of Miami in Movements at the New World Center in Miami Beach. The culmination of “Project 305,” a New World commission supported by the Knight Foundation, Movements joined the talents of composer Ted Hearne and filmmaker Jonathan David Kane — with a big assist from Miami-Dade residents wielding cell-phone cameras.

A pre-concert slideshow of the surrounding Lincoln Road neighborhood, projected on the hall’s interior screens, gave a flavor of the program to come, and an indication of the neighborhood’s evolution with the arrival of the New World campus. The montage included shots of the marquee of the Lincoln Theater, the New World’s former home; now the location of a high-end boutique.

The program’s first half was a showcase of the indigenous sounds of Miami. The sextet Picadillo mixed traditional Cuban music with rock and blues in its three-song set. Sol Ruiz’s vocals generated plenty of heat, and Alejandro Sierra’s trumpet riffs added spice to the rhythm section. “Chimpun” was the best of the bunch: Here, Hector Agüero’s band was on authentic Latin musical territory, and the joy their vocals and beats generated was contagious.

The Barry Bucaneiros had the crowd clapping on cue with their combination of Brazilian samba and calypso. Based at Barry University, the nine percussionists and ensemble director Brian Potts deployed well-drilled unison drum strokes that accelerated to a fierce clip. Two tambourines brought island flavor to the drum corps’ exciting demonstration, which earned an audience ovation.

A gospel choir — drawn from Miami Temple Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Florida Memorial University and Church of the Open Door — sang to accompaniment by saxophone, piano, organ, bass, drum kit and tambourine. Under the direction of Florida Memorial’s Nelson Hall, the voices were well-blended and authentically fervent. “Jesus, Sweet Jesus” had swing as well as heft. A restrained and eloquent version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” featured three excellent soloists and mellow corporate choir vocalism. Among the instrumentalists, Kenneth Vargas stood out for sheer versatility. Initially playing trumpet, Vargas switched to violin, which he commanded with sweetness of tone and dexterity.

In the program’s second half, the New World Symphony walked on to cheers resembling the welcome accorded a winning sports team. Their tune-up, George Gershwin’s 1932 Cuban Overture, perfectly set the stage for the evening’s main event. New World artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas has long been a Gershwin specialist, and few conductors lead Gershwin’s music better nor with more deft handling of the brash big-band elements. The symphonic synthesis of American blues and Latin-tinged rhythms was given full sway by crackling brass, smooth and precise strings, and a top-notch rhythm section that added claves, maracas and bongos to more traditional orchestral percussion.

The six sections of Miami in Movements attempted — successfully, for the most part — to mix travelogue and social commentary. Over a thousand videos were submitted by individuals and organizations to form a part of the final collaboration. Hearne and Kane themselves also visited the area’s diverse neighborhoods, shooting film and interviewing Miamians.

Movements was more successful as a cinematic than musical experience. That said, Hearne’s score was thoroughly professional, opulently orchestrated and several cuts above the average Hollywood soundtrack. The one misstep was in the section, “Ode to that Miami bass,” when a plucked string figure seemed totally out of synch with the dazzling video of ethnic dances and festivals. Perhaps this was meant ironically, in the manner of choreographer Merce Cunningham’s dance creations, in which the music does not parallel the choreography.

The score’s best moments came at the opening and close of the thirty minute-plus presentation. In the initial “Out of the swamp…” section, solo flute and harp coupled with audio samples of waves and breezes accompany photos of the ocean and sunrise, all to haunting effect. Hearne finally throws caution to the winds in the “Canary in the coal mine” finale, as ominous and wonderfully dissonant motifs rise from the brass and engulf the full orchestra. Alongside video of flooded streets and dead fish floating by the roadsides, this is music that would still pack a punch even in the absence of visuals.

Kane’s film, with its uniquely crowd-sourced component, covers a lot of ground. At times the music totally stops to allow the residents’ comments to be heard without distraction. In addition to local landmarks, the film touches on racial and ethnic divisions, the devastation of Hurricane Andrew and the county’s rebirth, crime and climate change. The word “poverty” is never mentioned, and evidence of it is little seen onscreen, even though that, too, is part of Miami in no small way.

Kane’s images, often stunning, were spread across four screens, and often-split screened and superimposed within each of those separate canvases. It was legendary director Abel Gance who pioneered split screen and multi-image techniques in his 1927 silent film classic, Napoleon. But everything old is new again as Kane supercharges those flourishes with tech-enabled speed and proficiency.

An audience that was largely new to both the venue and the New World Symphony awarded Tilson Thomas, Hearne and Kane a standing, cheering ovation. Many in the audience had contributed video to the project. (Videos of the event will be shown at meetings of the local organizations that were also contributors.)

The New World Symphony has been a local leader in community outreach with its free pre-season concerts and music education programs in area schools. Now it has an opportunity to build on this feel-good event. The challenge will be to entice this newfound audience to return and discover the larger universe of classical music.

The New World Symphony season continues 7:30 p.m. Friday at the New World Center in Miami Beach with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Schubert’s Overture to Rosamunde, Webern’s Five Movements and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 (“Italian”). On Saturday 8 p.m. at the Arsht Center in Miami, the Schubert and Mendelssohn works are repeated plus Strauss’ Don Quixote with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violist Jonathan Vinocour as soloists.;

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Sun Oct 22, 2017
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