An alumna of the New World Symphony, Zeneba Bowers has established a successful traditional career as assistant principal second violin of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
Not content to serve as lieutenant in a regiment of violins under the command of a conductor, Bowers has also struck out on her own. She founded the ensemble ALIAS, a venture in which musicians donate their services and profits go to charities. Lest one think that the group is focused more on good intentions than quality music-making, ALIAS performances have reached such a high level that a recent recording has been nominated for a Grammy.
The young violinist promotes the ensemble relentlessly.
“We’re really heavy on the press, and when I say heavy I mean I call them until they get restraining orders,” she said. “There’s still kind of a pull away in the classical field from advertising yourself or marketing. There’s an attitude that you’re dumbing it down, and I just could not disagree with that more.”
Her dual role, her aggressiveness as a promoter and lack of concern for maintaining the often stiffly formal protocols of classical music represents an ideal promoted by the New World Symphony, the Miami Beach ensemble for young conservatory graduates, which tries to turn out musicians who can make classical music thrive in the 21st century.
The 86-member orchestra, founded in an old movie theater on Lincoln Road, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season Saturday with an opening concert of Russian music led by Michael Tilson Thomas. Yet the South Beach educational institution is also marking its quarter-century with renewed efforts to retool the traditional classical music format as well as helping young musicians find employment during a difficult, quickly changing period for symphony orchestras.
In the past decade, the Florida Philharmonic folded, as did orchestras in Honolulu, Syracuse and other cities. Opera companies in Boston, Baltimore, Orlando and elsewhere closed their doors. The Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the world’s great symphonic ensembles, declared bankruptcy. Audiences continue to grow grayer.
As for the younger generation, it pulls music off the web and expects it to be free. The career path of the orchestral musician, never among the easiest ways to make a living in this country, was starting to look unsteady, to say the least.
“That’s very much on everybody’s mind here,” said Howard Herring, the New World Symphony’s president and chief executive officer. “We’ve seen orchestras go out of business. We’ve seen orchestras step back in terms of number of weeks, and we’ve certainly seen salary decreases. We actually think that the New World Symphony is guiding our fellows to a place where instead of taking a negative approach to why it isn’t working, assess your talents, look to your responsibilities and then be prepared to represent the art form both as a great player and as a member of your community.”
With its high-tech New World Center campus off Lincoln Road, the orchestra is experimenting with alternatives to the traditional full-length concert. It trains its young musicians in how to engage with crowds in a more informal, contemporary manner. They are coached in how to speak to audiences, talk to second-grade classes, perform in radio interviews and mingle with donors.
“I think in the whole music profession there’s this idea that this is such a great tradition, and the future of the tradition depends on reimagining it and revivifying it,” said Tilson Thomas, the orchestra’s founder, artistic director and dominant personality.
“This has to come from giving young people the opportunity to be part of that process,” said Tilson Thomas, who also is music director of the San Francisco Symphony.
“Not only are people focusing on the training that gives them the maximum competitive edge to go after these big orchestral jobs, but also they’re thinking of other opportunities of working in music. I think making people realize that if you really love music and you want to create an interesting life for yourself that there are a number of ways of doing that, not necessarily the traditional paths, and that New World enables you to explore some of those.”
Among those choosing a nontraditional path is violist Katie Wyatt, who labored for years at her instrument in order to play in an orchestra. But after traveling to South America and seeing Venezuela’s famous El Sistema classical music program for poor children, she returned for her second season at New World with new ideas of what she wanted to do.
“My mind was made up that I was going to do more than take orchestra auditions, that I wanted to shape the way that people care about music in their community,” she said.
She called her teacher, Robert Vernon, principal viola of the Cleveland Orchestra, in tears. “I thought I was failing him,” she said. “I called him and said ‘I’m so sorry. You’ve invested so much in me as a viola player, so much time preparing all this repertoire for the auditions, and now I really think that what I want to do is be a leader in music and social change,’ ” she said.
“He said, ‘Katie, knock it off. Everything that we’ve been preparing you for has led you to this day. All of the passion that you have for music and the way that it has changed your life you will share with others and inspire others and be excellent on the job.’ ”
Wyatt went on to found KidZNotes, an organization that provides free instruments, music lessons and ensemble training to poor children in Durham, N.C. This school year, the program will enroll 200 children. “I wanted to shape how music could build a community for the good,” she said.
Of New World's 900 or so alumni, the largest number have taken positions in American orchestras. Among these are the Boston Symphony with six alumni, the Chicago Symphony with three, the Metropolitan Opera with three, the San Francisco Symphony with 10 and the Cleveland Orchestra with 11. Employing the largest number is the Kansas City Symphony — dubbed “New World Symphony West — with a whopping 23, more than one fourth of its roster.
New World wouldn’t be successful in placing alumni in major orchestras if it just turned out PR-minded musical entrepreneurs. Achieving mastery of the piano, cello or clarinet to the level demanded by a top orchestra requires a level of commitment and discipline seen in few professional fields. At the Cleveland Orchestra, for example, everything depends on an audition of difficult solo works and excerpts from the orchestral literature, with the first round conducted behind a screen. There are no interviews. Such soft skills as the ability to speak to an elementary school class count for exactly zero.
“We have a very rigorous audition process,” said Gary Ginstling, the Cleveland Orchestra’s general manager and a clarinet alumnus of New World. “It’s very traditional as far as orchestras go. There’s no doubt in Cleveland that we’re looking for musicians that are absolutely at the top of their field on their instrument.”
Yet once the players are in, Ginstling said, the Cleveland Orchestra can certainly utilize their community relations skills. “We’re in a city that’s challenging economically, and the population is declining, so we’re trying to find ways to connect the orchestra with a larger group of people from northeast Ohio,” he said. “We’ve really worked to connect our musicians with our audiences closer and giving them a chance to speak from the stage and engage with our donors and members of the public, humanizing and personalizing the members of the orchestra.”
The desire to make orchestral musicians an active part of their community has long been an essential part of the New World Symphony’s DNA. Harpist Elizabeth Hainen joined New World in its second year, 1988. Her memories include working on Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (and hanging out at the pool) with Leonard Bernstein, whose advocacy of Mahler helped raise the composer’s work to the leading position it holds today. She went on to what for most New World members would be a dream job: principal harp of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which despite its financial troubles, continues to make great music as one of the nation’s top ensembles.
But in addition to her orchestral work, solo career and teaching responsibilities as chair of harp studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, she has established a nonprofit group that provides harp lessons and access to harps for public school students.
“At the New World Symphony they gave us a lot of seminars and coaching, and it always made you very aware of where you came from,” she said. “So you really feel, when you’re given such a gift as a big position like Philly, that I need to do something, I need to give back. It’s probably the most rewarding thing that I do.”
This season, 31 new fellows, selected from more than 1,200 graduates of music conservatories, arrived in South Beach. They moved into small furnished apartments in two renovated hotels. Each receives a weekly stipend of $450. During the year they will receive private lessons from visiting members of leading orchestras, undergo training in dealing with the public, learn from psychologists how to handle auditions and work with contemporary composers.
The heart of the program is a full concert schedule, a fast-paced series of concerts that will throw many of them into the world of performing orchestral musician for the first time in music spanning the early Baroque to contemporary premieres. The musicians will perform under Tilson Thomas as well as a variety of well-known conductors from around the world this season, including Stéphane Denève, Susanna Mälkki, Matthias Pintscher and composer John Adams.
In addition to the value and excitement of working with such top rank conductors, the typical New World fellow today is faced with two roles and an array of choices: the thrill of being part of the massed forces of a superb orchestra along with somehow carving out a career and achieving one’s personal career goals.
“I would love to play in an orchestra, but I’d like to do a little bit of everything,” said violinist Amos Fayette, who is entering his second season with New World. Among the highlights of his first season, Fayette mentioned the late-night Pulse concerts and the season-closing performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with Tilson Thomas.
“For me this was a very meaningful experience, exploring Mahler with someone who’s a real expert,” he said. “That piece was kind of the culmination of everything we worked on through the year to gel the orchestra and treat the orchestra like a big chamber group.”
Yet Fayette also coached a gifted young violinist through the works of Bach, Mendelssohn and Paganini to the point that she could study with concert violinist Elmar Oliveira at Lynn University. And he even managed a concert series, coordinating the Musicians’ Forum series, which includes solo, chamber, jazz and pop performances.
“The definition of what it means to be an orchestral player is changing,” he said.