New World to Real World

An Oregon classical bassist steps toward the future in Miami with the legendary Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony

By ANGELA ALLEN

In February, I joined several other members of the Music Critics Association of North America at the New World Symphony in South Miami Beach, Fla. For three days we heard concerts and rehearsals, wandered around the building designed by architect Frank Gehry, and spoke to “fellows” and to the institute’s leaders, including Michael Tilson Thomas, the forward-thinking NWS artistic director.

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Kyle Sanborn, a gifted musician, knows he’s on his way to playing many more Beethoven symphonies and Brahms concertos in his orchestra blacks. Born and reared in Portland, he is a first-year fellow – don’t call him a student – at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Fla., a laboratory in its 30th year of educating classical music’s next generation.

A “fellow” compares more closely to a post-doc (or post-doctoral fellow) than to a student. New World Symphony fellows are taking hold of a real-world orchestral experience in Miami – and being paid a generous stipend for it.

Miami’s New World Symphony performed in February. Photo: Angela Allen.

Sanborn, 26, plays the bass and joins 86 other accomplished musician-fellows (audio, directing, and library fellows are part of the mix) on a clear and steady track to classical music careers. The art is alive and well, if the NWS signals its future. Fellows have finished college or conservatory, some have completed graduate school, and all are taking the next strides in their musical lives. The average age is 23 to 27, though there’s no age limit on applying for these coveted and competitive spots. About 1,000 musicians apply for 30 to 35 spots that open every year.

No question, those talented and driven enough to be accepted to NWS are on the path to become the 21st century’s first-class musicians. Of the 1,050 alumni recorded in the most recent annual report, 90 percent make their living from music, and many play for top-drawer orchestras.

A fellow’s life

Sanborn receives $500 a week stipend for the 35-week season during the three years he remains a fellow. NWS’s dropout rate is close to nonexistent, though some fellows are hired for jobs or leave for illness or family reasons. Spirits are generally high, fellows say. A few complain of being worked too hard or lacking time to prepare for concerts. Sanborn, a diehard Northwesterner, grumbles mildly about the Miami heat, but so it goes in the real world.

Sanborn practices at least four hours a day, usually skipping a day a week, honing the standard concerto and orchestral repertoire for a bass player (think Giovanni Bottesini, Johann Baptist Wanhal, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, J.S, Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, among others). When not with the orchestra in rehearsal or concert, he’ll often use one of the 2011 state-of-the art building’s 27 practice rooms.

Erstwhile Oregonian Kyle Sanborn performs with New World Symphony.

Sanborn is among fellows – about 20 a year – who take off for tryouts with orchestras, symphonies, and chamber music groups. He recently returned from the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, where he played during our time in Miami, to audition for assistant principal bass, so he answered questions by email. (He nailed the position, and will start his Calgary job in September.)

Along with his fellows, Sanborn does community outreach projects and trains in entrepreneurism, a new part of the program. Musicians have to know how to promote themselves, even if hired by a major orchestra, which is the goal of many at NWS, including Sanborn. Initiative is not lacking: Fellows design about 20 percent of NWS’s 65 concerts. Entrepreneurialism tests a young musician, said NWS provost John Kieser, a onetime concert bassist. “Sure,” Kieser said, “they all want to be playing first chair in the New York Philharmonic. But what about the drive?”

Sanborn works with mentors who visit South Miami Beach – Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conductor Robert Spano and rising star James Gaffigan, chief conductor of the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester (Lucerne Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland), have been among his recent favorites – and he takes lessons long-distance through state-of-the-art technology. Each year, about 120 faculty from leading musical institutions in the United States and Europe teach at NWS. They come from top orchestras: Chicago, Boston, London, and San Francisco symphonies; Cleveland and Philadelphia orchestras; and Berlin, Los Angeles, New York, and Vienna philharmonics.

NWS double bass section class with Scott Dixon, double bassist from the Cleveland Orchestra. Photo: Gregory Reed.

Best of all? Sanford bows his bass under the guidance of visionary NWS artistic founder and conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, who also leads the San Francisco Symphony several months a year.

MTT: Helping fellows discover their voices

MTT, as Tilson Thomas is called by those who play under his baton – or really, anyone who knows or works for him — is renowned for his enthusiasm, open-mindedness, creativity, deep musical knowledge, and ability to teach. He is an advocate for new music and commissions and debuts several pieces a year, including his own compositions.

During my February visit, he showcased Miami in Movements, a revised multi-media crowd-sourced piece by composer Ted Hearne (a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize) and filmmaker Jonathan David Kane that premiered at NWS in October 2017, as well as some of his own pieces. But he’s also a Gustav Mahler devotee, and regularly conducts and records Mahler’s music. And he knows the work of 20th-century American composers Aaron Copland, Steve Reich, and Charles Ives as deeply as Mahler’s.

New World Symphony Wallcast. Photo: Angela Allen.

MTT has pushed incorporating new technology into musical performance. Most notable is the WALLCAST®, where live concerts are projected onto a 7,000-square-foot wall in SoundScape Park outside the NWS building. He insists that graphics, film and video projected onto surfaces surrounding musicians and the audience, and inventive lighting, enhance performances and boost appeal to a range of music fans. SoundScape Park has turned into Miami’s outdoor living room, where people can hear and see concerts for free.

At 73, MTT remains slim as a baton, with shaggy hair and eyebrows, and a pair of blue-rimmed glasses that he wears when conducting, composing, joking, teaching, arguing and playing with the two well-groomed miniature poodles that he and his husband/manager/cellist Joshua Robison share. He announced in October that he’d be retiring as San Francisco Symphony music director following the 2019–2020 season, after 25 years.

Nevertheless, he is on the move and full of ideas, his colleagues and students attest. He’d rather think about the way in which the orchestra will play Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird “if there’s another side to the piece to explore and rethink – it is so elegant,” than he would about any successor. Not that he’s stepping down, or thinking of it. But he has mentioned the internationally acclaimed Gaffigan, 39, who worked three years as an associate conductor under him in San Francisco, and Teddy Abrams, 30, the energetic conductor of the much revived Louisville Orchestra, as showing keen interest in NWS.

Michael Tilson Thomas at a New World Symphony performance. Photo: Gregory Reed.

Mostly, at least in Miami when he’s not conducting a performance, MTT thinks, teaches, and talks about music. And he makes time for fellows, though he is onsite for only about 10 of the fellows’ 35 weeks. The late Ukraine-born American violinist/conductor Isaac Stern “told me the success of the institute would be built on personal attention I give,” said MTT, who accomplishes much of that by clearly communicating complex musical ideas.

“MTT is one of the most articulate conductors I’ve ever met,” said Sanborn, who began playing the bass as a teenager at Clackamas High School after romances with the guitar and cello. He won the Oregon state competition for solo bass his senior year in 2010. He went on to earn a bachelors degree in music performance at University of Oregon and a masters in musical performance at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Many of Sanborn’s fellow NWS musicians have advanced degrees from the top conservatories, though a masters degree is not a requirement for a fellowship.

Sanborn’s training makes it easy for him to understand MTT, but he adds that “MTT is very clear in what he wants and how he wants it done. He is very detailed and makes me make sure that I never slack off on the easy parts, that every note has a musical purpose, and that it fits into the big picture of whichever piece we are doing.”

Chloe Tula, a 22-year-old harpist fellow from rural Wisconsin, used words like “fantastic,” “knowledgeable,” and even “eccentric” to describe MTT when we met with her and other fellows in Miami Beach. “We love him. He’s so inspiring; he knows so much. He makes everything so fascinating.”

MTT believes part of his job is to help fellows explore. Many fellows, though talented and ambitious, burn out on a piece after years of playing it. “A score is a recipe, a code book,” and then musicians “have to go deeper. Orchestra limits can be confining. These fellows play the same piece for years on end, the same way. They need a break. They need to learn to trust their instincts.”

NWS offers no classes on improvisation (this is a classical, not a jazz, program), but “we color outside the lines,” MTT said. “It’s OK to try things. … So many of these students have come from great conservatories and worked within curriculum guidelines. Now they can form new ideas about the music. They can discover. They don’t have to accept the gospel according to one person. In many ways, I am working as an executive producer to the fellows to help them to develop their own voices.”

Immersive, bright and flexible

The institute, until 2011, was housed in a cramped Art Deco theater – now H & M department store – but the seven-year old Frank Gehry-designed building is spacious, open, and bright. It’s lit by natural light, designed with enormous windows, and topped with a roof terrace that fellows are encouraged to enjoy. You can see musicians preparing for concerts and stashing their stuff in lockers on the ground floor as you walk past the building.

New World Center Concert Hall. Photo: Angela Allen.

“So many concert halls are like crypts,” said MTT, but not this one, designed by Gehry in close touch with MTT. Now 89, Gehry babysat for MTT when the young Thomas was growing up as an only child in Los Angeles in what MTT calls a highly verbal theatrical atheist Jewish family where he was “always asking questions.”

In the performance hall, sometimes described as “a shoebox turned on end,” the audience sits close to the action. The farthest of the 756 seats is 14 seats from the stage, though the space can be reconfigured in numerous ways, occasionally driving stage crews crazy. Sometimes musicians play above the stage on platforms. Audiences often turn their heads to locate where the notes are coming from.

“MTT wanted it to be impossible to feel passive in the concert hall,” said NWS president Howard Herring, a one-time chamber music pianist. “He wanted everyone to be engaged, to see and hear the music, for the music to surround the seating. It’s an immersive environment.”

Sanborn in the NWS double bass section, performing ‘The Firebird.’ Photo: Gregory Reed.

MTT calls NWS “one ongoing adventure – the building, the installations, the music. All the world is a moment of excited discovery.”

As for that Firebird that MTT was contemplating in early February? It went well, and Sanborn was onstage for the mid-February concerts. “MTT was very proud of us,” Sanborn wrote in an email in March. “His reaction after the second night of performances was awesome to witness. The orchestra really showed its stuff. It was a very challenging cycle – everything has to be perfect in Stravinsky.”

MTT is as much about enthusiasm as he is musical excellence. “Enthusiasm drives everything in the performing arts. Enthusiasm for your own work, for others’ work, too. We are for music and we are for one another.”

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Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.

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