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.