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Howard Herring and the New World Symphony

Since 1987, the New World Symphony has been a driving force for culture in Miami. Now in its 28th season, it’s helped change both the cultural and architectural landscape in Miami Beach with its gorgeous Frank Gehry-designed New World Center and the adjoining Soundscape park.

The New World Symphony is populated by young players, mostly recent college grads who serve in the orchestra as fellows for three years. With 87 fellows and a new class of about 35 entering each year, the group is young. Conservatory and university graduates vy for these fellowships, with thousands of applicants audition for each spot in the ensemble.

It is a place where orchestral fellows do more than hone their skill, they learn about marketing, educating students in the community, and all of the other things that come with creating a career as an orchestral player that aren’t usually taught in conservatories.

We spoke with Howard Herring, president and CEO of the New World Symphony. His enthusiasm for music, community, cross-cultural engagement, and Miami itself is infectious. According to Herring, Miami might just be on the vanguard of the most distinctly musical American cities of the 21st century.

How do you think the New World Symphony contributes to the cultural landscape of Miami?

Howard Herring, of the New World Symphony. (Courtesy of the Knight Foundation/Flickr)

The New World Symphony is a cultural institution and it’s also a laboratory. In this laboratory, we’re also generating new ideas about how music is taught and presented and experienced by the audience. Our contribution to the community, and we are quite serious about making a contribution to the community, is to pursue experiments in the teaching of music, and that means how our fellows are taught and teach others, how it’s presented, and how it’s experienced, which is also an audience-based kind of initiative. The output of all of this is that our fellows are learning by doing, by the experiences that are theirs. In some cases [this means] teaching in the community and teaching online, as well as being taught by up to 100 coaches from major orchestras in the U.S. and Europe.

The contribution we’re making through the teaching is to augment the music instruction that’s here. We’re augmenting the music instruction in public schools. If you were to go through and talk with our fellows, about 90% of them would tell you that [their music careers] started in a public school music program. There’s the Miami Music Project. Some alums are teaching there, and our fellows work with them once or twice a month. We are in hospitals and senior citizen centers, mostly for performances, although one of our flute players chose as her community engagement work for the year to play at a hospice center. She went through psychological training and she played there throughout the year

NWS was involved in surveying audience members earlier this year as to what they would like to see at future events. Could you tell us more about that?

The idea is that if you’re trying to understand how music is presented, you have to listen very carefully to the audience. Survey taking is part of that listening process.

In the New World Symphony, we are providing all these ways of experiencing the music that they didn’t already have. There are short form concerts (60 minutes of music with narration from the performers afterwards). There is Pulse — late night concert music alternating with DJs. And, of course, the WALLCAST™. In each case, we are identifying ways to reach the community. That is one way the “learn by doing program” is working through the community.

In the minds of many stakeholders of the classical music community in South Florida, New World Symphony is one of the only major orchestras in the region. How does that affect the organization’s work?

What we are doing as an educational institution is having a good bit of positive effect in this community. You have a really interesting new addition to the community — Nu Deco was founded by one of the fellows from New World. There are a good number of our alums who are playing in Nu Deco.

I think that Miami is becoming a music city, slowly, but it’s happening. LIke so often happens in Miami, it’s not going to look like another American city. It’s going to be a music town as expressed by the many musical ensembles in the city. I see us as one participant in an incredible “musaic” in the community. Between the opera and the ballet and the Miami Symphony and other groups, there is incredible music making going on. It’s not an either or, it’s an and. It’s a tapestry and there is a lot going on — and it’s changing because Miami’s changing. [With] the vibrancy of Miami, we are making this up as we go.

How was the idea of the WALLCAST™ born?

You have to go all the way back to the fact that [Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas] has all his life been intrigued by electronic distribution. In his 20s, Michael was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic [and asked] how do you build an audience if you have these electronic tools? As we were designing the center, we were thinking about projection, it occurred to us we could also project outside. We had a strong public/private partnership with the city of Miami Beach. We were talking about the transparency of the facade. We wanted the front door to be an invitation. We wanted to show that audiences could see what was happening on the inside could be seen on the outside.

We spare no expense on the technology. If you’re going to do this, you should make this the best visual and sonic presentation possible. We have two sets of mics in the hall. We are capturing this music in three dimensions. We then mix that and send it to the park, 167 speakers, creating a sonic 3-D environment outside, and the environment is created — you feel the three dimensions of an acoustic chamber. Then the projectors themselves are 4k projectors — same kind that you would see in a high-end movie theatre. We have a robust image and sound, creating a second experience for the public for free. We are always wondering how can you share it, how can you put your arms around the community, how can you invite more people to the experience?

What would you say is the legacy of the New World Symphony thus far?

First of all, I would say that there is a legacy of generosity — 35% of our performances are free to the public, our WALLCAST™ is available for free to the public, our players are augmenting training in the schools. We’re not charging for that. We believe that is an outward sign of the incredibly generous spirit that musicians must have. You want to play well and that’s your own artistic standard. But you also want to share, and that’s what I feel that we are doing.

The second piece would be a legacy of leadership. Since we started working in the new campus, many people from various arts organization have come to Miami to visit us. They’ve done so because they want to understand their own future and they want to watch what we’ve done and use us to gain perspective. On top of that, there are four professional orchestras that are “wallcasting,” if you will, usually at their performance space.

I think that’s the legacy that we’ve built. The last piece would be education. That is so important on so many levels — the legacy of our players, our audience, the legacy of the students who are part of our community.

Do you think that the success of the New World Symphony would have been possible in other cities?

I suppose it might be possible in other places. There’s a unique energy in Miami right now and it’s been here. Go back 30 years, start of the Miami City Ballet, New World School of the Arts. Right at that period of time, Lincoln Road was not in the greatest of shape, but they opened Books & Books on Lincoln Road, having already opened it in Coral Gables. The Arts Center of South Florida also started in ’88.

After 30 years, culture has begun to define Miami. Those instances I just gave you are followed by Art Basel. It would be hard to imagine Miami without that, without the cultural assets, without the Book Fair, without the Miami City Ballet who tour all over the world and get incredible reviews, without the WALLCAST™. What a glorious thing has happened here — that the city was open to it, that they could see the economic impact on the city. Think about it — intense, joyous, cultural activity found it’s home here. We are not the only reason, but we are one of the reasons Lincoln Road has found success. Over 30 years, culture took root and it is one of the defining factors in a young city. And that says things to me not only about the last 30 years, but about the next 30 years. We’ve got the facilities now and we are going to do what we can do.

It’s an amazing story that has yet to be told. And in some cases, who has time to tell it? We’re busy making it happen.