A retrospective look back at the New World Symphony’s first 35 years

By Lawrence Budmen

Michael Tilson Thomas in front of the Lincoln Theatre, the New World Symphony’s original home on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.

There was a palpable sense of excitement February 4, 1988 in the lobby of Gusman Cultural Center (now the Olympia Theater) in downtown Miami. A new orchestra was about to make its debut. Named for the “New World” of America, the New World Symphony would be comprised of graduates from the nation’s top music colleges and conservatories. 

On the podium was Michael Tilson Thomas, one of the world’s most renowned conductors. Tilson Thomas and Carnival Cruise magnate Ted Arison and his wife Lin were the founders of the new organization. 

The evening would be a watershed moment for South Florida’s cultural life. In the over three decades that have passed since that debut performance, 1,266 fellows have passed through the academy’s program. An overwhelming majority are members of professional symphony orchestras in the U.S. and abroad. Others are teachers at prominent music schools.

The maiden concert program was not comprised of pops repertoire or easy listening. Challenging the young musicians and listeners alike, the bill of fare, following the National Anthem, consisted of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, the premiere of Miami Bamboula by Charles Wuorinen (commissioned for the occasion), Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. 

Michael Tilson Thomas leading the National Anthem to open the New World Symphony’s inaugural concert February 4, 1988.

To say that all of the ensemble’s playing was distinguished would be less than true. The musicians had been together only a few weeks and there were wind and brass slips along the way that betrayed a lack of familiarity and cohesiveness. But Tilson Thomas, then as now, was such a commanding figure and deeply expressive interpreter that the performances were exciting and insightful. The ovations were long and loud and the after-party went into the wee hours of the morning. A new era for concert performances and music education in Miami had begun.

At the orchestra’s second concert a few weeks later, Tilson Thomas led a taut, intense reading of Stravinsky’s darkly neo-classical Symphony in Three Movements, one of the masterpieces of 20th-century repertoire. The playing was already several notches above the previous performance, clearly the result of careful, detailed rehearsal and the musicians’ growing familiarity with each other and their conductor. 

During that brief mini-season, the composer-conductor-educator Lukas Foss became the first of many guests to mount the New World podium. At the final concert, American conductor John Nelson led the Dvořák symphony for which the orchestra was named. Following a rousing ovation, Nelson (who was a regular visitor in those early seasons) repeated the second movement. The main theme of that Largo became known as the song “Goin’ Home” and that proved appropriate as the initial group of players scattered across the country following the performance.

Most of the musicians returned in the fall for the ensemble’s first full season. A high point of that 1988-1989 season was a Charles Ives Festival. A symposium featured Ives scholar-conductor James Sinclair and legendary conductor-musicologist-raconteur Nicolas Slonimsky (who conducted the 1931 premiere of the original chamber orchestra version of Ives’ Three Places in New England). That presentation was accompanied by a program of Ives’ scores for winds and small ensembles. The festival culminated with Tilson Thomas leading thrilling readings of Ives’ Brahmsian First Symphony and the wildly innovative and eclectic Fourth Symphony, both in new critical editions from the Ives Society. New World players had come a long way in a short time.

The young violinist Gil Shaham made a stunning debut, playing Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with Tilson Thomas. He would become a regular guest soloist. Soprano Sylvia McNair was both stylish and vocally impeccable in Handel arias under Nelson and Japanese conductor Kazuyoshii Akiyama conducted a thrilling, kaleidoscopic rendition of Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra.

It was quickly becoming obvious that the ensemble needed a home of its own. Downtown parking was problematical for Gusman Center performances. The group moved around from a recreation center in Miami Beach to a church on Brickell Avenue for rehearsal space. A chamber music series under Scott Nickrenz was established at the acoustically bleak Colony Theater in Miami Beach. When Leonard Bernstein came, in the final year of his life, to lead a special rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, he had to work in the outdated recreation center which lacked air conditioning.

As the need for a permanent space became increasingly evident, Arison acquired the Lincoln Theatre, an abandoned movie house on Lincoln Road. After a renovation, the hall opened on October 12, 1989. But there were problems from the start. On the opening night, the building had not yet passed fire inspection so Tilson Thomas had to conduct Copland’s Appalachian Spring with the house lights on and Miami Beach inspectors observing the proceedings. (The lights were extinguished, to the audience’s applause, for the Rachmaninoff and Beethoven works on the remainder of the program.) 

At a Sunday afternoon performance, after the orchestra had tuned and guest conductor Stanislav Skowaczewski was about to come on stage, an announcement on the speaker system asked the audience to vacate the hall. Sparks appeared to be coming from some of the theater’s wiring and the concert was cancelled. On another occasion, a pipe broke, flooding the venue’s lobby and causing cancellation of rehearsals and the week’s concerts. 

The larger problem was the theater’s acoustic. Initially bright the first night, the sound could turn harsh and strident in large scale symphonic works, posing a challenge to players and conductors alike. For chamber music and Baroque and classical era works, the acoustics were adequate and workable. In major scores like Mahler symphonies and Strauss tone poems, the sound would hit the walls and blare at top volume, making inner details scarcely audible. Still, the group had a rehearsal and performance home to call its own.

That Tilson Thomas and many podium guests were able to minimize the Lincoln’s sound deficiencies was a tribute to their artistry and keen sense of orchestral dynamics. The symphonies of Gustav Mahler became a specialty of the house. Tilson Thomas’ insight and sense of balance and proportion between rigorous formal clarity and emotional projection made him a worthy successor in this rep to his mentor and friend Leonard Bernstein (who brought Mahler’s music into the standard orchestral repertoire). He inspired the youthful players to exceed their personal best in numerous Mahler performances. Both taut and majestic, Tilson Thomas’  Beethoven readings were equally distinguished.

Among American composers, Aaron Copland, who the conductor knew, took pride of place with performances that were idiomatic and authoritative. The works of Steve Reich and John Adams were introduced to South Florida audiences. Adams’ Harmoniehre, a symphony in everything but name, was given a blockbuster reading. (Adams would subsequently appear as guest conductor on several occasions. Leila Josefowiscz gave a searing account of Adams’ Violin Concerto under his baton.)

Among European modernists, Luciano Berio was a Tilson Thomas favorite. Particularly memorable were two iterations of Berio’s Folk Songs, a daring revisionist take on traditional indigenous music. Two very different sopranos – Roberta Alexander and Lauren Flanagan- met Berio’s daunting vocal challenges with absolute command of the score’s Herculean demands. The academy’s fellows benefited greatly from tackling these complex works under Tilson Thomas’ masterful direction.

Among the roster of guest conductors in 1988-1989 was Leif Bjaland, assistant conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. He made such a strong impression that he quickly was appointed resident conductor. Bjaland proved an outstanding accompaniment to soloists in concertos and an enterprising programmer whose concerts maintained high standards. He would eventually be appointed music director of the Florida West Coast Symphony (now the Sarasota Orchestra), an ensemble with many former New World players in its ranks. 

His successor as assistant at the San Francisco orchestra (which was now under Tilson Thomas’ direction) was  Alasdair Neale, a transplanted Englishman of immense talent. Neale would become New World’s principal guest conductor, playing a leading role in the organization’s educational mission, conducting the ensemble’s annual Concerto Night (in which NWS fellows would take turns in the solo spotlight) and introducing many contemporary works.

Many distinguished guest conductors helmed the academy’s podium. A particularly memorable evening saw Tilson Thomas sharing conducting duties with Christoph Eschenbach (who led a fiery Brahms 4 and three Hungarian Dances as encores) plus the two playing a Schubert four-hand piano work. Two of the fabled Järvi dynasty (Neeme Järvi leading white-hot Kodaly and Dvořák and Paavo Järvi directing commanding readings of symphonies by Sibelius and Nielsen) were among the guest maestros. 

The late Czech conductor Zdenek Macal was a frequent visitor, giving heartfelt readings of Smetana, Dvořák and Janacek scores.. Skowaczewski, Sir Neville Marriner, James Conlon, Robert Spano, and Sergiu Commissiona (who led a passionate Tchaikovsky Pathetique) also led fine concerts.)  Sir Roger Norrington and French Baroque specialist Emmanuelle Haïm made rare American appearances. French conductor Stéphane Denève made his South Florida conducting debut at the Lincoln. His stellar musicianship and rapport with the players proved impressive and he would return regularly  and play a major role in the organization’s future as its second artistic director.

Marin Alsop directed a superb performance of John Corigliano’s moving and powerful Symphony No. 1. Conlon devoted one of his residencies to a festival of works by composers banned and/or murdered during the Holocaust. A fully staged production of Viktor Ullmann’s opera The Emperor of Atlantis was presented as well as an orchestral program. 

Not all guest conductors scored triumphs. Peter Oundjian, who became a regular visitor, proved highly variable. He directed pedestrian Brahms and Mozart and wildly eccentric Elgar performances but also virile Nielsen, Barber and Vaughan Williams. Federico Cortese, a talented former assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony, misjudged the Lincoln’s acoustic, producing a deafening barrage of sound.  The rising American conductor James Gaffigan led a blatant account of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and a half-baked Sibelius Fourth but he effectively brought out the folksy Americana of Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

Manfred Honeck

Conductor Manfred Honeck. Photo: Felix Broede

Despite the eclectic programming, there were repertoire gaps that shortchanged the players’ educational experiences as well the audience’s exposure to the diversity of classical literature. Only a handful of the 104 symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn have been presented and only three by Anton Bruckner.(An eloquent account of Bruckner’s 7th under Manfred Honeck in 2006 was a highlight of the group’s first quarter-century. Honeck almost tamed the Lincoln’s acoustics, holding the brass down and achieving real pianissimos, a rarity in that space.)

While the ensemble played a wide-ranging repertoire, there were other glaring omissions. Except for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Orff’s Carmina Burana and a Schubert mass, major choral works were not presented. This deprived the players of experiencing the challenges of balance and blending unique to these scores. Likewise (with the exception of one work each by Roy Harris and William Schuman and repeated presentations of Copland’s Third Symphony), the major symphonies by American composers of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s were not heard.

While the playing could be variable and less than always precise in the orchestra’s early years, as cooperation from major music schools was gained, the level of auditioning musicians rose exponentially. With the requirement of a master’s degree, a  much more  elevated level of performance became the norm. By the 2000’s, the New World fellows could hold their own with most of the country’s top orchestras on the right night. That rising standard made the acoustical deficiencies of the Lincoln Theater all the more glaring.

In the fall of 2006, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts was opened in downtown Miami and the New World became one of the center’s resident organizations, presenting an annual three-concert series (in addition to its season schedule in Miami Beach). The center’s Knight Concert Hall proved an acoustically resonant, if less than perfect, concert venue. At the New World’s first series concert there, the aural perspective seemed like hearing the ensemble for the first time. Instead of a tight, harsh group ambience, the sound took on bloom and richness. Further adjustments would improve the acoustics even more and the academy’s downtown concerts became major events.

With funding from the City of Miami Beach and private donors, the $160 million dollar New World Center was opened (next to the Lincoln, now a high-end boutique) in the Lincoln Road entertainment district on January 26, 2011. Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the complex comprises a main performance hall, a smaller chamber music and recital space, practice and rehearsal rooms, high tech video and recording facilities, a six-story atrium lobby and a roof top space for social gatherings. 

The very first tremolos of Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman were revelatory. Presence and clarity were fully evident and one could literally feel the sonic vibrations. With additional acoustical adjustments, the hall would prove an outstanding space, allowing the orchestra, chamber players, guest artists and conductors to be heard at their best. The celebratory opening week of concerts was covered by critics from across the US and the opening night was broadcast across a national network of classical music radio stations. A new era had dawned.

With a strong acoustical environment finally at hand, Tilson Thomas’ transcendent Mahler performances became true events. A 2016 rendition of the massive vocal cycle Das Lied von der Erde, with magnificent singing by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Simon O’Neill, was especially distinguished. The hall’s satellite stages above the main performance platform (which doubled as balcony seating areas) were utilized for elongated composer portrait programs that combined orchestral, chamber and vocal works. 

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of John Cage’s birth, a multi-week festival of the pioneering American avant gardist composer’s music was held. Led by Tilson Thomas and utilizing all of the hall’s capabilities, the series included a recreation of one of Cage’s dance collaborations with choreographer Merce Cunnigham (with dancers from downtown Miami’s New World School of the Arts). Exhibitions of Cage’s photography and poetry were offered in adjacent spaces. The event proved to be exhilarating and drew a large, youthful audience that largely differed from the normal concert public. 

Weeklong festivals devoted to individual instruments were instituted. Multi-concert weeks devoted to the viola and clarinet featured top exponents of those instruments from around the globe. Two collaborations with Miami City Ballet brought three Stravinsky-Balanchine ballets to the stage as well as Jerome Robbins’ dance version of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. Tilson Thomas’ lucid, careful musical direction provided symphonic level support to the stellar dancing. The repertoire for the Sunday afternoon chamber music concerts became broader, offering more diverse combinations than merely string quartets or piano trios.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought all of this burgeoning activity to a halt as it did with artistic ventures throughout the nation. In the initial months of the lockdown, some of the fellows who chose to remain in Miami Beach put together their own chamber music concerts which they webcast weekly from the common room of the organization’s apartment complex. The 2020-2021 season consisted entirely of web programs. At first, highlights from concerts of past seasons were streamed. Later new programs of chamber works and scores for small orchestra from the main stage of the New World Center were offered. This series culminated in a May, 2021 American program conducted by Tilson Thomas. Featuring the work of William Grant Still, Copland, Carl Ruggles, Conlon Nancarrow and Charles Ives, this sampling of native originals reflected the New World at its peak.

A truly great performance of Ives’ Three Places in New England was a fitting climax to a season that tested the players’ adaptability under difficult circumstances. Once again, it was strongly evident that the musicians play with extra snap, precision and tonal luxuriance when Tilson Thomas takes the podium, not to mention his mastery as an Ives conductor second to none.

As the organization prepared to return to live performances in the fall of 2021, news of Tilson Thomas having been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant form of brain cancer, was revealed. He had undergone surgery during the summer of 2021, followed by a regimen of radiation and chemotherapy. Cancelling his fall concerts, Tilson Thomas planned to return for February programs but those, too, were eventually cancelled. 

In March, 2022, he announced that he was resigning as artistic director after nearly 34 years. The conductor was named artistic director laureate and following a $30,000,000 gift from Lin Arison (Ted Arison’s widow), the auditorium of the New World Center was renamed the “Michael Tilson Thomas Performance Hall.” Tilson Thomas triumphantly took the stage in May, 2022 to direct a deeply felt reading of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which surpassed all of his previous New World performances of that score. Multiple standing ovations greeted that highly emotional evening.

Tilson Thomas has repeatedly returned in the past two seasons, cancelling only one concert in the fall of 2023. If anything, his performances have become richer and more translucent and he never fails to obtain an extra amount of precision and attention to detail from the fellows. 

Conductor Stéphane Denéve

New World management announced in March, 2023 that Stéphane Denéve would succeed Tilson Thomas as artistic director. The French conductor’s enthusiasm for the post has been palpable from his first, hastily scheduled, concert in his new position. The depth and mellow sonority of the playing in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben testified to the deep bond between conductor and musicians to an even greater degree than in his previous outstanding guest engagements. His programming during his first full season (2023-2024) has been adventurous, spotlighting new and recent contemporary works and alluring French rarities while drawing top drawer performances from the ensemble.

Denève intends to present major choral works and fully staged opera as part of the academy’s future agenda. The 2024-2025 season will feature Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and a staged double bill of Viktor Ullmann’s The Kaiser of Atlantis and Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins as well as the debuts of six guest conductors. 

The first 35 years of the New World Symphony have greatly enriched South Florida’s cultural landscape and the lives and careers of its fellows. Its future looks assured and exciting, building upon a remarkable legacy.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the New World Symphony in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 and Ravel’s Piano Concerto with Jean-Yves Thibaudet  8 p.m. May 4 and 2 p.m. May 5 at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

Stéphane Denève conducts the New World Symphony in John Williams’ Just Down West Street…on the left, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the world premiere of a new work by Guillaume Connesson and Williams’ Violin Concerto No. 1 with James Ehnes.  8 p.m. May 11 and 2 p.m. May 12 at the New World Center in Miami Beach. nws.edu


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