In Miami, the shape of things to come

PROJECTIng THE FUTURE: The east side of the technologically sophisticated New World Center will showcase performances on an exterior wall.
PROJECTIng THE FUTURE: The east side of the technologically sophisticated New World Center will showcase performances on an exterior wall. (Patrick Farrell)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011

In 1993, a group of prominent orchestra administrators issued a report predicting the obvious: doom and destruction unless the nation's symphonies radically changed the way they did business. In the future, according to "Americanizing the American Orchestra," orchestras would have to consider "collaborative efforts with other art forms, interactive audience projects, the use and adaptation of technology, and other departures from business as usual."

It was a badly written, sanctimonious, controversial document, and most American orchestras simply ignored it. To the extent that they adopted any of its recommendations, orchestras did so halfheartedly, amateurishly and without real faith in the underlying premise: that audiences craved a new kind of concert, updated for the 20th century.

The opening Tuesday of a new concert hall in Miami Beach, designed by Frank Gehry, is the first architectural evidence that anyone was listening to the Cassandras of the early 1990s. For decades, there has been a general but vague sense that the concert hall needs to be turned inside out; that audiences want a more direct engagement with the music; that to compete with television, video and popular music, something radical had to happen to the old shoe-box symphony hall, with its orderly rows of seats and formal distance between listener and musician.

Gehry's concert hall for the New World Symphony, an elite training orchestra that is one of the most innovative musical organizations in the country, is the first American concert space built from the ground up to include sophisticated video, theater-style lighting and flexible stage space that can accommodate not just an orchestra, but soloists and chamber groups. It also happens to be one of Gehry's best buildings in years, an introspective structure that gathers the wisdom of his earlier work on concert halls in Los Angeles and in Upstate New York.

Located just off Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, a rehabilitated corridor of art deco architecture and elegant shopping, New World Center is a mini-campus, with a Gehry-designed parking structure, a 756-seat concert hall and an adjacent 2.5-acre urban park (designed by the West 8 firm). The parking garage, which is clad in steel mesh and glows at night with saturated color lights, is no better or worse than any other parking structure. And the park, which Gehry was asked to design before a dispute with the city of Miami Beach soured him on the prospect, is overstuffed with some ungainly sculptures that suggest a sci-fi invasion of metal insects and block views of the hall.

But the centerpiece of the campus is Gehry's $160 million concert space, and it works brilliantly. An 80-foot-high wall of glass gives dramatic views into the interior of the building, where Gehry's signature forms, twisting and organic, are seen as if growing inside a terrarium. The main facade of the building also includes a 7,000-square-foot projection wall, where audiences in the adjacent park can watch live "wall-casts" of what's happening inside. Finally, an orchestra isn't just broadcasting its performances on a temporary screen, but has created a state-of-the-art sound and projection system integrated into the design of the building. The entrance also includes a few sculptural forms to remind everyone it's a Gehry building, and a side wall has an odd but appealing curving flap over windows that allow light into the concert space.

The performance hall, filled with light blue seats that suggest the colors of the ocean only a few blocks away, feels like an intimate tent, dominated by giant "sails," solid white curving forms on which video can be projected. They are several inches thick, made of plaster and form an essential part of Yasuhisa Toyota's acoustic design, which generates an astonishing quantity of sound (the NWS is still tweaking it with fabric panels and other elements). The steeply raked seating is arrayed snugly around the stage and places the audience in intimate proximity to the musicians. Even the farthest seat is no more than 13 rows from the stage. It is not quite a "theater in the round," but it comes close.

On a weekday evening earlier this month, the young musicians were exploring the possibilities of their new home, rehearsing for a performance of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Overhead, videos commissioned from the faculty and students of the University of Southern California filled the giant sails while spotlights picked out individual players during solos. As the musicians played Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's popular suite, a farmer slowly trudged with his ox, cartoon chicks burst from their shells and raced through space, and little vignettes about people in an art gallery played out on the billowing sculptural panels.

Other orchestras have experimented with efforts to make the concert hall more democratic and more contemporary in its engagement with media. Most have failed. With a few notable exceptions, concert halls in the round have failed. And video close-ups and film usually feel contrived and distracting. The difference, in Gehry's new space, is that it all comes together in a unified whole. The video feels like an integral creation, and it raises the possibility that a new, hybrid art form might emerge from this kind of effort.

The lighting, designed by Cirque du Soleil veteran Stefan DeWilde, is professional, unobtrusive and tasteful. And the acoustical liveliness of the hall should put the nail in the coffin of an idea that gained force over the last half-century: that only a rectangular hall can offer the proper clarity, accuracy and warmth of sound.

At the back of the concert hall, Gehry has created a sophisticated control booth clad with square glass windows and shiny white panels, which suggests the architecture of a 1950s research park, a clean, sleek exercise in Cartesian order. Inside are workstations for a dozen or more people, filled with computer screens and control panels for the high-definition cameras, video and lighting. Rather than hide the control booth, the way projectionists are hidden in a movie house, the architect has created a visual reminder of the depth of the New World Symphony's investment in technology, which also includes wiring the entire building for Internet2, the new generation of Internet connecting educational, nonprofit and research institutions.

For the first time, that technology does not feel like an invasion into the 19th-century concert space, but an essential element of a newly emerging entertainment form. This may be horrifying to traditionalists. There is no distance between the listener and the music. The quantity of sound the hall develops suggests the enveloping, even overwhelming sound of music heard through headphones or ear buds. The video grabs the attention, making it difficult at times to find an objective remove from the details of the music. The fourth wall, whatever remained of that supposedly off-putting imaginary barrier between audience and spectacle, is now entirely shattered.

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