Pilbrow's Brave New World

It is hard to overstate just what a breakthrough the New World Center represents for the future of symphonic music.

The concept was the inspiration of the founder and leader of New World, Michael Tilson Thomas. At our first team meeting in Miami Beach with leaders of the New World organization, architect Frank Gehry, acoustician Yasu Toyota, and Theatre Projects, Michael described his dream for a new type of performance space. A flexible concert hall intended for the rehearsal and performance of symphonic music. It was to be an intimate, flexible, space, of a scale that would be sympathetic to young performers, but one that might allow any concert to be presented within a three-dimensional, immersive environment of full stage lighting and video projection.

New World is an extraordinary institution. It is an advanced teaching academy, where the finest post-graduate music students come to train to be leaders in their field. Some of the greatest talents in music are involved, both teaching and coaching in their Miami Beach headquarters and elsewhere, to centers around the world, via ultra-high-speed, hi-fi, interactive video links through the miracle of Internet 2 technology.

Experiencing symphonic music in many of the world's great halls, such as in the golden extravagance of the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna can be a transcendental experience. But in a less visually rich environment, something may be lacking. Not, perhaps, to the musical aficionado, but to the less sophisticated music lover.

Theatre Projects has been privileged to be part of many concert hall projects since the early 1960's. We have always believed that a concert hall, no matter how demanding the acoustic criteria might be is, at essence, a theatre for music.

This is seldom the focus of those musical establishment figures that are usually the sponsors of a new symphony hall project. Acoustical excellence and impressive architecture are their highest priorities. There's less concern for what the performance actually looks . . . and consequently feels like.

Michael Tilson Thomas sought to change that. Maybe Disney's Fantasia sparked his imagination. Maybe the overwhelming visual sensations that have become commonplace, and indeed mandatory, in the popular music world, aroused his interest. He wanted his new hall to possess all the excitement offered by sophisticated stage lighting and video.

His wish touched a cord in me. For forty years we had sought to bring to the classic symphony hall greater theatrical potential: intimacy, improved sightlines, flexibility of staging capability (for musical performance can include many forms), and an enriched visual environment.

I remember, in the early '90s, attending a Saturday morning 'think-tank' with the board of the Atlanta Symphony. I talked about seeking visual variety, but this aroused absolutely no interest. "Rubbish, music is an aural medium, it is to be listened to," said the chairman. With a couple of hours to kill before my flight back to NYC, I asked if I might visit their current hall in the Woodruff Center. We walked into the back of the large hall. Apparently the assistant conductor had organized a children's concert. Onstage was the orchestra, above their heads hung a small projection screen on which a Kodak Carousel flashed slides, evidently ripped from National Geographic . . . of planets, galaxies, and the Milky Way. The music was Holtz. The audience: 2,000 children . . . in an absolute frenzy of excitement.

The Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, England (1982), acoustician Russell Johnson's first concert hall, has full stage lighting capability to entirely change the color of the room. The Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary Alberta (1985) and other TPC halls possess theatrical capability. Verizon Hall in Philadelphia (2001) and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA (2003), added projection capability.

Theatre Projects also worked with Frank Gehry and Toyota on the iconic Disney Hall. This new hall for New World was to take a giant leap forward; offering the fusion of classical music with an engulfing visual and emotional experience.

Such a step does present a formidable challenge for the orchestra. Staging a complex audio-visual experience is vastly more complex than simply switching on conventional white down-lighting. New World has already invested in a highly talented lighting and video artist.

A concert hall to reach new audiences for classical symphony; through music—combined with spectacle. Set in an intimate, thrilling space, and wired for the entire world to share.

Richard Pilbrow
April 10, 2011

For more about New World Center, check out Live Design's Project In Focus, sponsored by coolux and Theatre Projects

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