The director of the New World Symphony has democratized classical music


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Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the New World Symphony on May 6, 2022. Tilson Thomas has resigned as artistic director of the symphony due to health issues.

Courtesy of New World Symphony

When Michael Tilson Thomas bowed out last weekend, the standing ovation and thunderous applause were no surprise. Neither the cheers nor the silent tears (which, at least, streamed down my face.) Then three of the New World Symphony musicians brought the artistic director large bouquets of bright blue roses.

Many people know of Tilson Thomas’ love of blue. His blue round glasses and the blue sneakers he sometimes wears with a tuxedo are just two examples. But there’s more here than meets the eye.

Turns out blue roses are quite the metaphor. Botanically speaking, there is no blue rose, so it is a symbol of the impossible dream come true, a miracle. And what could be more appropriate?

I’m talking about the miracle that draws crowds – up to 3,000 or maybe more – of people on a Saturday night to sit on foil chairs or picnic blankets and listen to centuries-old music . I’m talking about the impossible dream which, by day, is a 7,000 square foot great white wall – white at least until night falls and the music starts. I’m talking about the New World Center and its monthly WALLCASTS concerts, which bring live classical music to SoundScape Park using technology.

Unquestionably, Tilson Thomas is an outstanding conductor, a brilliant scholar, a charismatic personality and more. He co-founded and for 35 years was artistic director of an orchestra of the most promising young musicians imaginable.

But I am a music-loving architecture critic. For me, his greatest legacy will always be this building, a philosophical and architectural triumph. It marks a major moment in the democratization of the arts.

When I interviewed Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry about this building, we talked more about music than architecture. Gehry had a lifelong friendship with Tilson Thomas. Frank was, many years ago, Michael’s babysitter, and they share a missionary passion for spreading classical music around the world.

Great dream

Decades after the babysitting gig, they’ve built a little gem of a concert hall with just 756 seats and near-perfect acoustics and sight lines. From there, they went big, letting that dream come true of bringing music into the world, the big dreams that sometimes only science fiction believed possible. This is a defining moment for the arts, and more specifically for classical music.

The New World Center changed the trajectory of classical music in Miami and hopefully much of the world.

For too long the performing arts have been beyond the reach of all but the elite. Ticket prices are (necessarily, and unfortunately) high. There is an ever widening gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us. Arts education is at rock bottom in too many public school systems across the country. So how do you know the power of music, the power to inspire, to heal, to transform, to invigorate? You invent the WALLCAST.

If you’ve ever visited one, you know that all are welcome (including well-behaved dogs and babies). There is no dress code. I have long believed that architecture and design can affect behavior. Treat people civilly and they will act that way. Offer inspiration, and they will be inspired. Or, to quote an oft-quoted movie line, “If you build it, they’ll come.”

I still feel the awe and wonder of that first WALLCAST concert. I once threw a birthday party there with dozens of friends sprawled on blankets in front of the big screen. Once I sat behind a child, maybe 9 years old, who was playing the cello and watched him absorb the music through every bone in his body. My bet is that sometimes the audience spans at least nine decades, from babies to nonagenarians. Most people would consider this a miracle. But the impossible happened.

So bring the blue roses. If anyone deserves them, it’s Michael Tilson Thomas.

Beth Dunlop was the Miami Herald’s first architecture critic. Her columns and essays appeared in the newspaper from 1980 to 2013. She has also authored numerous books and edited two magazines.

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