By Mariana Rodrigues
Metropolitan Luxe sat down with Michael Tilson Thomas to learn about his vision for the future of music and the boundary-pushing initiatives taking place in our backyard
During a recent TED talk, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas shared an experience he had watching kids play baseball in the streets of New York City: “…a tough, slouchy kid got up to bat, and he took a swing and really connected. And he watched the ball fly for a second, and then he went, ‘Dah dadaratatatah. Brah dada dadadadah.’ And he ran around the bases. And I thought, go figure. How did this piece of 18th century Austrian aristocratic entertainment turn into the victory crow of this New York kid? How was that passed on? How did he get to hear Mozart?”
From a young age, Tilson Thomas, known as MTT, has been fascinated by music and the role that it plays in people’s lives. “What happens when the music stops? Where does it go? What’s left? What sticks with people in the audience at the end of a performance? Is it a melody or a rhythm or a mood or an attitude? And how might that change their lives?” said MTT.
It was this fascination that led him to a legendary career in classical music. Known for his Grammy-winning interpretation of the complete Gustav Mahler symphony cycle with the San Francisco Symphony, MTT is also Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra and in 2010 was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.
Over the years, his fervent appreciation of music evolved into a desire to teach and pass on that passion to the next generation of musicians and music enthusiasts, prompting him to co-found the New World Symphony (NWS) with Ted and Lin Arison. The Miami Beach-based NWS is dedicated to the artistic, professional and personal development of young musicians.
As Artistic Director, his vision for the Symphony stemmed primarily from his concern about the future of young musicians. “This started in a very personal way when I was working at Tanglewood and other summer programs. I would often ask them ‘what are you going to do next year?,’ and very often the answer was ‘I don’t know. I guess I could go to grad school, or try to break into the freelance pool.’ I thought it would be fantastic to have a place where they could continue to be on the cutting edge of honing their skills, where they could be in touch with many musicians representing different types of musical traditions, from Baroque to contemporary music, and that would serve as a launching pad for their careers.” In the 29 years since its co-founding, NWS has done just that, launching the careers of more than 1000 alumni worldwide.
Described as a ‘laboratory for the way music is taught, presented and experienced,’ it is no surprise that Miami, with its vibrant and diverse culture, was selected as the home of NWS. “We can take risks there,” said MTT during a 2014 interview with the Financial Times. And risks they are taking. Beyond an academy for up and coming musicians, the Symphony is exploring new ways to bring music to the masses.
“…we were very interested in bringing music to people, sharing it with them in ways that bordered on social engineering, as well as artistic ambition. We’ve developed a variety of different programs that seek to accomplish that.
“[As co-founders] we were very interested in bringing music to people, sharing it with them in ways that bordered on social engineering, as well as artistic ambition. We’ve developed a variety of different programs that seek to accomplish that. We regularly commission video artists, filmmakers and animators to create visuals to accompany the music we perform so existing and new audiences can access the music in a different way. We produce evenings like New Work, dedicated to the commissioning and exploration of music, poetry, film and theater; Pulse: Late Night, which merges DJ music alongside classical music; evenings that combine activities such as a yoga class with a concert; and WALLCAST concerts, in which we project concerts taking place inside the concert hall onto our front wall for audiences outside in the park.”
Over the years, NWS has pioneered what they refer to as ‘alternative formats’ to push the boundaries of classical music.
Their latest initiative, Project 305, seeks to connect music, community and culture in a new way by creating Miami’s first crowdsourced symphony and accompanying video reflective of the city as seen and heard by its people. For 100 days (January 31 to May 12, 2017) anyone can be a part of the creative process by recording audio and video clips that show what life in Miami is like. The final piece will premiere on Saturday, October 21, 2017 at the New World Center, with viewings taking place at partner venues throughout Miami-Dade County.
“We want everyone to feel like this is as much their work of art as it is ours, because we truly have the opportunity here to do something very special,” Miami filmmaker Jonathan David Kane told SouthFlorida.com. Kane will produce the film that will accompany the symphony by guest composer Ted Hearne with overall artistic direction by MTT.
The collaborative project, a partnership between New World Symphony, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and MIT Media Lab, is modeled after the collaborative City Symphonies created throughout the world by innovative composer, inventor and educator Tod Machover.
According to Victoria Rogers, vice president of arts for the Knight Foundation, NWS’ record of using technology for community engagement makes it an ideal fit for this project: “It’s just another great way of breaking down barriers to access to classical music.”
The hope is for programs like this one to have the same impact on the community as Mozart did on that young man playing baseball, opening them up to a new world and a deeper way of expressing themselves and their story.
NWS also recently held “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a concert-length series of music and wine pairings envisioned, produced and hosted by Cello Fellow Hilary Glen. The event, which xplored how combining music and wine enhances the enjoyment of both, was one of several curated events produced by NWS fellows to invite the public to experience music in a new way.
“It’s exciting and reaffirming that so many people today are making meaningful connections and contributions to classical music – from those continuing the tradition of maverick American composers to young musicians emerging from America’s orchestral academies. But most of all, there are countless people discovering for the first time that classical music is for them, that it is about them and about the world they inhabit,” said MTT.
There are few better examples of that than the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (YTSO). The 96-member ensemble, directed by MTT, was selected from exclusively online video auditions and inspired by the vision and work of NWS.
“The exciting thing is all this is just a prototype. There’s just a role here for so many people – teachers, parents, performers – to be explorers together. We need your perspectives, your curiosity, your voices.”
So what is next for MTT and NWS?
“It’s impossible for us to completely envision all the directions we’re going, but we know that in addition to reaffirming the great traditions of the past, we want to explore what the possibilities of the future may be. I still believe in the transformative quality that a musical performance can have on the lives of the people who perform it and the people who listen to it… And it excites me to meet people who are hikers, chefs, code writers, taxi drivers, people I never would have guessed who loved the music and who are passing it on. You don’t need to worry about knowing anything. If you’re curious, if you have a capacity for wonder, if you’re alive, you know all that you need to know. You can start anywhere. Ramble a bit. Follow traces. Get lost. Be surprised, amused and inspired.”
To learn more about the New World Symphony visit www.nws.edu
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mariana Rodrigues: After more than 10 years as a communications executive in New York and Paris, Mariana is now thawing in the warm, sunny sands of Miami. Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, her love for exploring and writing has taken her all over the world. Curious by nature, she is always on the lookout for her next story