Miami’s Gehry Concert Hall Gets Bedouin Curves, Glorious Sound

New World Symphony
The interior of the New World Symphony Performance Hall in Miami Beach. The curving, draping acoustical panels within the 756-seat concert hall are also projection screens. Photographer: Claudia Uribe/New World Symphony via Bloomberg

Frank Gehry played pastry chef in Miami Beach, topping an entrance canopy of the $160 million New World Symphony building with a dollop of whipped cream in white metal.

It contrasts with the otherwise sober glass and white-plaster box of this concert hall and orchestral academy. On 17th Street, it’s just north of the lively Lincoln Road and steps from zigzag Art Deco beach hotels.

The new home of the 23-year-old symphony was opened with a series of concerts last week conducted by founder and artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas. The symphony is made up of musicians who are polishing their skills on three-year fellowships.

If you accept the canopy’s invitation to enter, you’ll find a light-dappled space with a corkscrewing stairway in what looks like a geological formation of white-painted tilted planes and winsome curves that rises six stories to a skylight.

The irregular shapes line halls congenially wandering like medieval streets. They enclose the academy’s practice rooms and rehearsal spaces.

Hidden inside is a concert-hall gem. The stage is big enough for a major symphony hall, accommodating more than 100 musicians, but the audience area seats a mere 756. Overlapping curved panels hang from the ceiling to form a Cubist bedouin tent.

Gehry and partner Craig Webb have surrounded the broad stage in steeply raked asymmetric tiers of seats, so you sit very close to the players. When Tilson Thomas surged through the overture to Richard Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman,” my ears flattened.

Swoops, Scoops, Warps

The architects carved their customary swoops, scoops and warped surfaces in service to the sound, with today’s go-to acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, of Tokyo-based Nagata Acoustics. The result is a clarity and immediacy found only in the best seats of standard concert halls typically three times the size.

I loved the balance and crisp if not burnished sound of a rear center seat. In a side seat, so close I could almost follow the cellist’s music, I felt excitingly immersed.

“Polaris: A Voyage for Orchestra,” a commissioned piece by Thomas Ades, showed off the hall’s innovative theatrical possibilities. Gehry built four small platforms amid the seats (one dangling overhead) where spotlit horn players handed passages to each other. Five of the draping acoustical panels became curving screens for a film by Tal Rosner that echoed Ades’s sea-voyage theme.

Luring Audiences

At the end, ovations brought Tilson Thomas back on stage for half a dozen bows. In post-concert chatter from bejeweled matrons and sober-suited men alike, the enthusiasm was not just for the artistry, but for the symphony’s ambition to invite audiences in new ways -- an urgent problem in classical music.

“We’ll do traditional programming, but on other evenings we’ll open the place up, like Saturday-night gallery walks do,” said Tilson Thomas before the opening concert. “We’ll offer shorter, smaller-format experiences.”

The New World will project simulcasts of its concerts on an outside wall of the building, free for audiences lounging in a $13 million park the city built in front. (Sad to say, Dutch landscape architect West 8 ruined a great idea by planting the park with giant faux Gehry ice cream cones in tubular metal.)

The hall has 14 configurations and 247 seats can retract to create a flat floor for a cabaret or to mix musicians and audiences.

“Young players today have a much greater desire to build their own artistic platforms, to make their own statements,” Tilson Thomas said.

In the New World Symphony, they have an extraordinary opportunity to invent classical music’s future.

The New World Symphony’s coming events include programs on Stravinsky, Mahler and “Inspired Surroundings,” conducted by composer John Adams. For more information:

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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