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Frank Gehry brings a fresh beat to Miami's orchestral experience

The New World Symphony's concert hall and park in Miami Beach, Fla.

Richard Patterson/Richard Patterson

'If a building didn't look like it was moving 50 miles per hour, it was not art deco," my Miami Beach tour guide says as we sit in a van that inches along Ocean Drive. Miami Beach is a major tourism destination partly because it has more of these fast-moving buildings than anywhere else. The buildings are just fun to be around. Try saying that about downtown Calgary.

But after 80 years, those great edifices with the flashy fins are receding in the rear-view mirror as Miamians look for more urbane architectural landmarks. While many of Miami's old buildings were made for tourists (art deco flourished here largely as "resort architecture"), today's showpiece buildings are made for the culture vultures. Newest among these is the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, which had its grand opening in January.

A block from the famous Lincoln Road pedestrian promenade, Gehry's $160-million building is wrapped around Michael Tilson Thomas's New World Symphony, an academy of 80 musicians who are tutored by Tilson Thomas, and guest faculty who drop down from the classical music firmament. The academy spent 23 years squatting in other performance venues, but now it struts in its own facility, which will make your eyes pop and jaw drop.

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The centre's design and technology is the first to turn orchestral concerts into multisensory experiences rather than static somnolent affairs where the only thing to watch is the blue rinse of the senior in front of you.

With just 756 seats on all sides of the orchestra, the small hall (the last row is about 14 metres from the stage) puts everyone in proximity to the subtle interplay among the musicians, something that made me feel connected to the performance in a way that I've not experienced in larger halls.

The main stage is composed of 10 movable sections that are surrounded by four smaller performance spaces where a quartet or a vocalist might pop up. But the neck wrenching needed to view some of these spaces had me mimicking Linda Blair's character in The Exorcist.

Overhead, five acoustical "sails" direct the sound to the audience and act as screens for videos, images or lighting from 14 digital projectors. During the opening week's concerts, these visuals serve - and extend - the music. During a rehearsal for the opening-night performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, short films by students of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts were projected on three sides of the audience. At times akin to an IMAX experience, the videos made the music viscerally exciting in a way that few concert performances have been for me. With the New World Center, Tilson Thomas and Gehry haven't just raised a baton in a new concert hall, they've raised the bar on orchestral programming for today's audiences.

Every orchestra is desperate to draw new blood, but the NWS tackles the problem through the WALLCAST, a program of free concert videos projected live onto an outdoor 7,000-square-foot wall. At night, a thousand flip-flopped fans enjoy concerts while sitting on the grass of the Miami Beach Soundscape, a new 2.5-acre park. At the inaugural WALLCAST, Miamians brought their picnic baskets and lawn chairs to create a street festival vibe.

By giving the musicians a new performance vessel, Gehry's design has made the ship metaphor literal. The stage and musicians' music stands are the ship's "deck" made of Alaskan cedar, the audiences' seats, covered in a fabric of sea-blue with a white-cap motif, are the ocean, and the white acoustical panels above are the billowing sails. With Gehry's design, Miamians are trading up from the casual, raffish vibe that defined this town for so long. A night at the New World Center is as much a priority as a day at the beach.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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