Music review: The New World Center tries out its space(s)


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MIAMI BEACH -- Frank Gehry’s design of Walt Disney Concert Hall has, from its outset, encouraged new thinking about the concert format. Audience members’ nearness to performers and each other constitutes a new musical democracy. Space, we’ve discovered, is the place.

The New World Center, Gehry’s latest hall and a sort of son of Disney, is new technology central, with electronic media -– audio and visual –- meant to expand music’s reach. Now this space can be almost anyplace, what with video-welcoming surfaces inside, a projection façade and snazzy speaker array for ‘wallcasts’ outside the building and wondrous resources for Web connectivity.


But this virtual reality is always an acoustical (and experiential) compromise. So at the behest of the conductor and artistic director of the training orchestra and its academy, Michael Tilson Thomas, Gehry has provided special platforms around the stage. Situating musicians in nooks and crannies of Disney Hall has proven popular for special surround effects, and having such real-world designated areas built into the New World Center is a boon for the reality-based.

“A Schubert Journey,” on Thursday night, was not multimedia, but it was, by using these special aspects of the hall, 3-D. The New World Symphony was joined on stage in the middle part of the program by the University of Miami Symphonic Choir and Frost Chorale. Chamber ensembles appeared on platforms above the right and left sides of the stage. At another platform nestled near the audience in a side terrace, Tilson Thomas at the piano accompanied soprano Laura Aikin in three Schubert songs.

It was a long concert with three hours’ worth of Schubert bits and pieces, famous and obscure. Tilson Thomas was curiously (and disappointingly) not talkative. If there was an overriding idea about Schubert, and Tilson Thomas is the kind of musician who has ideas about everything, listeners were left to figure it out themselves. Mainly, this was an evening to admire the versatility of these extraordinary young players and of Yasuhisa Toyota’s acoustical design. For many in the audience, this hall has been coming on too strong. Since it is less than half the size of Disney, it can get pretty loud. But there is a good side to that. If you want to attract the iPod generation, you do well to assume hearing loss already from earbuds overloading young cochleae.

The orchestra on Thursday (in single movements from the “Unfinished” and “Great” symphonies, “The Magic Harp” Overture, excerpts from the “Rosamunde” incidental music and the operas “Fierrabras” and “Alfonso and Estrella”) sounded great. Stridency was so yesterday and the day before. Now there is just satisfying depth of sound, and Toyota’s trademark bass response, which you feel in your feet, is more thrilling than ever here.

But as far as the concert format goes, a few more media bells and whistles would have been attractive. The program was divided into three sections, each played with regimented efficiency, no applause permitted until the end.

Some Schubertian connections were obvious. Aitkin (who was on the grand side) and Tilson Thomas performed the song “The Trout” on one platform, and that segued into its use for a theme and variations in the “Trout” Quintet. The song “Death and the Maiden” led to the Andante movement of the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet in Mahler’s arrangement for string orchestra (unsubtly led from the violin by former Juilliard Quartet violinist Joel Smirnoff). Jeremy Denk served as the outstanding all-around pianist for the chamber selections.

In the end, the symphonic pieces were what impressed. Tilson Thomas’ way with Schubert is both supple and dramatic. He conducts big Schubert, not preciously lyrical Schubert. I walked out exhilarated by the committed playing of the two big symphony movements. A program of those symphonies (with maybe an overture or two) would have made a very satisfying and exciting concert.

So too might a Schubert ‘experience’ -– talk, video, the works. The New World Center can be like an enticing new form of transport back in time to these old standbys. It can also be a rocket to the moon, musically speaking. But please don’t turn a musical journey into anything resembling the efficiently on-time but uninspired commercial airline flight home, on which I write this review.

-- Mark Swed