Classical Music in Miami

I have always wanted to write about the arts. Through the years I’ve written a fair share of Director’s Notes that have appeared in theatre programs here and there, mostly ephemera. But I was always so busy being in the arts that I never found the time and space to step back, take a deep breath, and take it all in. Now I am doing just that, loving the freedom that comes with it, and rediscovering the moveable arts feast that Miami offers week after week. Here’s some of what I have been enjoying in the past several months:

* Kronos Quartet (www.kronosquartet.org)

* Tenor Jose Cura with the Sao Paulo Symphony and another (truly brilliant) one with Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon (www.rolandovillazon.com) and a concert performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore – all three presented by the Concert Association of South Florida (www.concertfla.org.)

* The first four operas of the Florida Grand Opera season (www.fgo.org): Aida, Abduction from the Seraglio, Manon Lescaut and La Sonnambula.

* Several terrific concerts of the New World Symphony Orchestra (www.nws.edu)

* World Music concerts at Festival Miami (www.music.miami.edu/festivalmiami) featuring Cuban music (one), Chinese music (another), a tango concert (yet another.) All three were equally fascinating and satisfying.

* A Holocaust Memorial concert in which my wife sang and read poetry written by death camp victims, and still another one in which she narrated a Stephen Paulus (www.stephenpaulus.com) piece with a newly-formed orchestral ensemble (www.orchestramiami.org)  led by UM alumna Elaine Rinaldi.

* A Frost School of Music (www.music.miami.edu) concert featuring scenes from American Opera, and a New World School of the Arts orchestral concert featuring Dvorak and Rachmaninoff – with powerhouse faculty pianist: Lilia Zaiarna.

* Angels in America and Parade both at the New World School of the Arts (www.mdc.edu/nwsa). In both it was inspiring to see and up and coming generation of beautifully-trained young college-age performers – respectively and imaginatively directed by James S. Randolph, Jr. (Parade) and Stuart Melzer (Angels in America) taking on two enormously challenging pieces and brilliantly surmounting their hurdles.

* King Lear, in a touring production by the Classical Theatre of Harlem (www.classicaltheatreofharlem.org.)

* A very strong Pillowman, and, later, the offensively funny Romance by David Mamet, both at Joe Adler’s Gablestage (www.gablestage.org.)

* Beethoven’s Ninth and – in the same evening – Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra at the PAC (www.carnivalcenter.org)

South Florida is a community with a high number of retirees and immigrants. Retirees, make up the highest percentage of our arts audiences. The immigrants range from wealthy Venezuelans, Argentines, and Brazilians many of whom came fleeing the rampant inflation and political chaos of their countries, to mono-lingual blue collar Central Americans, and – the largest segment – Cuban-Americans. These are segmented, in turn, into a “first wave” that would include the 1960’s refugees, many now turned citizens and affluent, followed, in chronological order of arrival, by the people from the Mariel Boatlift, followed by the “Balseros” of the last decade, both these last two groups severely limited financially and therefore not habitual art events attendees.

Although I do see more older-generation Hispanics at the Opera than at the theatre or at the symphony, I rarely see any young Cuban-Americans. Born and raised here, they are no different in terms of their non-existent or poor arts-attendance than the 20-somethings and 30-somethings from any other ethnic group, no matter what their financial ability to buy a ticket might be.

Except for the Kronos Quartet concert, presented by Miami Dade College’s Cultura del Lobo series (caffairs@mdc.edu) the median age of the attendees at most of the other 24 or so events was alarmingly older and in their mid-60’s. The Kronos audience is younger than most, especially when they get the deep discounts that allow for a young couple to attend the event. Nobody at these concerts has his or her nose facing north – least of all the musicians up on stage – and the general tone of the evening is relaxed, all-about-the-music, friendly, hospitable, informed, welcoming, “hip.”

And the Kronos Quartet – both the artists and the marketing apparatus behind them – have carefully built a following approaching near-cult status among a younger audience – and by that I mean people in their mid-20’s to mid-40’s today (late teens and twenties a decade or two ago.) Who, pray tell, has done that for Opera or symphonic music or for theatre? My constant concert companion and I skewed oldest in that crowd the night we attended the Kronos event, but we saw none of the usual suspects that we see again and again at most other arts venues.

Randomly observed at the Kronos event: spoken program “notes” vs. written musicological essays that nobody bothers to read, anyway. The musicians take a hand-held microphone and riff on the piece about to be played…Nobody talks down to the audience… Casual dress – onstage and in the audience… Theatrical lighting, rather than institutional concert lighting (full up on stage, house to half…) An all-stops-out, bells and whistles finale with a mind-blowing array of percussion instruments and the four members of the ensemble having their way with it all… An unself-conscious mix of acoustical and electronic instrumentation… A complete comfort level with programs that embrace music from all lands, all periods, all stylistic bents…I heard minimalism, back to back with Astor Piazzola tangos, serialism, cutting edge stuff followed by Cuban Boleros.

It is my hope that the horses with blinders who pull the modern-day juggernaut of classical music heed the call and begin to truly prepare for the day when we baby boomers who attend the arts performances of today are occupying seats elsewhere. Preparing for the future and making some changes right now will ensure that the next generation and the one after that and the ones beyond will continue to attend the opera, the symphony, the theatre, and the concert hall.

I recently attended a very fine concert by the always-exciting New World Symphony: the Coriolan Overture by Beethoven, the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, and John Corigliano’s Symphony no. 1. The Beethoven was enlivened by the musical conducting of Steven Jarvi, the Grieg by the impeccable playing of Orion Weiss. Alasdair Neale led the orchestra in a no-holds-barred performance of the four-movement Corigliano symphony – a massive work in which the composer pays homage to the memory of several friends of his who succumbed to AIDS in the 1980’s.

It was disheartening not to see the Lincoln Theater filled to capacity on this particular Sunday afternoon. It was heartbreaking to sense a lukewarm response by much of the elderly audience to a great performance of a great piece by a contemporary and world-renowned American composer. I can safely bet that a younger audience would have responded more viscerally to the astringent dissonances, the massed orchestral forces, and the ear-splitting climaxes of the Corigliano symphony.

It all begins with the art itself: what we play, show, and present on stage and how we play it, show it and present that art. The branding, the positioning, the marketing come later. But no amount of trendy marketing and sleek brochures will put young bottoms on seats if the art on stage does not speak to the concerns and sensibilities of a younger demographic. The NWSO is definitely taking some much needed steps in the direction of finding that audience for the future.

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