Performing Arts

Festival Miami 2015 aims for crossover appeal with an array of musical styles

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein will perform Philip Lasser’s ‘The Circle and the Child’ at Festival Miami.
Pianist Simone Dinnerstein will perform Philip Lasser’s ‘The Circle and the Child’ at Festival Miami. Lisa Marie Mazzucco

As a cello student at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Joy Adams thinks classical music is “as close as we get to human genius.”

Yet she also believes that the great works of Bach, Brahms and the rest stand behind a wall of stiff formality and antiquated, somewhat snobby concert practices that repel the sensitive, intelligent young people who might otherwise appreciate this music.

“A lot of people who would be really interested in it never experience it,” she said. “Just the words ‘classical music’ give off this stuffy sort of vibe. They don’t want to sit through a two-hour concert. They don’t want to go someplace where they can’t have a beer at the same time. So a lot of them don’t try it out to begin with.”

When the university’s Festival Miami opens Friday night, an unspoken subtheme of the annual concert series will be how to attract younger listeners to classical music, where audiences are graying and concert formats and repertoire remain dominated by the creative work of previous centuries. Held mainly on the stage of the university’s Gusman Hall, the festival will offer more than three weeks of classical, jazz, Latin, pop and Broadway.

There will be traditional classical performances, such as the opening concert of American music with the pianist Simone Dinnerstein, a chamber concert featuring the Brahms Horn Trio and a solo violin recital.

But there will also be concerts that span or try to bridge genres, such as Black Violin, a violin-viola duo in which classically trained musicians play hip-hop, and a new piano concerto by the alternative rock singer-songwriter Ben Folds, who attended the Frost school.

‘Some of our programming is to get the younger demographic because we can’t just say, you know, we have this lovely Brahms trio, please come.’

Shelly Berg, UM Frost School of Music dean

“Some of our programming is to get the younger demographic because we can’t just say, you know, we have this lovely Brahms trio, please come,” says Shelly Berg, the Frost School’s dean as well as a noted jazz pianist and composer. “That’s one of the reasons we give concerts like Black Violin — because they’re classical musicians who are also going to throw some hip-hop in there. Ben Folds’ piano concerto will surprise people. Ben Folds is known as a rock star. His piano concerto is a post-Romantic, very engaging classical piece. He’s a terrific composer. The whole thing blew me away when I heard it.”

Berg believes the school has been creative in finding ways to bring classical music to a younger audience. Its Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra gave a live performance last April of video game music, a surprisingly classical genre, with music that sounds like Wagner, Bruckner and Prokofiev in their more violent moods. The orchestra played soundtracks from Super Mario, Final Fantasy, BioShock, Halo and Warcraft.

“It’s great music, most of it, and none of it sounded like rock,” Berg said. “It sounded like classical music. Walking out, one kid is saying to another, ‘That was awesome. I think I just got culture.’ 

For Frost School professor and conductor Thomas Sleeper, who will lead the opening concert of Festival Miami, such an approach doesn’t give students enough credit. He believes they can appreciate more challenging music.

As a young composer, Sleeper had performed with an ensemble that played advanced contemporary classical music, strange-sounding stuff, for public school students. They didn’t cater to the kids’ tastes, try to play whatever teenagers were listening to at the time or anything else they might recognize. They challenged them, he says, and the audiences responded.

“We would go on tours and play in the public schools, and the kids ate it up, and we’re talking avant-garde music,” he says. “Anything that’s powerful speaks to them. It doesn’t matter what time period it’s from. It can be Gerald Finzi or Mozart or whatever. If it’s great, like any great art, it has just enough ambiguity to allow you to put yourself into it. I don’t think you have to do crossover to do that.”

‘If it’s great, like any great art, it has just enough ambiguity to allow you to put yourself into it. I don’t think you have to do crossover to do that.’

Thomas Sleeper, conductor and Frost faculty member

In selecting music for the opening concert, Sleeper thought not of the audience but of the orchestra, the young musicians he is leading and teaching.

“My first priority in picking repertoire is the kids,” he said. “Second is the audience. We’re an educational institution, which means I have to make sure, number one, that the rep I’m doing with them is of value, and that there are things they can learn from it.”

Opening the concert will be Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 5, a thundering, kinetic work that’s hardly ever played, despite its merits. The acclaimed pianist Simone Dinnerstein will perform a new concerto called The Circle and the Child by Philip Lasser, a composition teacher at Juilliard. Sleeper describes it as “sort of neo-Romantic but very interesting because you can never feel where the pulse is. But it flows in a way like Ravel does, when you begin to transform something, so it’s a very beautiful work.”

Finally, from 1970, the golden age of the American environmental movement, comes Alan Hovhaness’ And God Created Great Whales, which incorporates recorded whale sounds into the music.

“It’s done in a way that’s not special effect-ey,” Sleeper says. “There’s definite interaction back and forth, which is the kind of thing it would be real easy to make cheesy, but he doesn’t.”

Festival Miami grew out of a modest series of concerts devoted to Latin American chamber music, featuring members of the Frost school’s faculty and a few guests. Concerts were free. In 1983 the new dean of the Frost school, William Hipp, took over and expanded the festival, embracing jazz, Latin music, classical and Broadway, turning the series into a multi-week event that would mark the unofficial opening of the South Florida concert season.

“I conceived of a broader festival that would involve the major faculty artists, the major ensembles, juxtaposed with guest artists of national reputation,” Hipp says. “The diversity of the programs helped us build younger audiences. The orchestra drew a traditional audience; a jazz concert, a mixture of traditional and young people; a Latin concert an entirely different audience. So we were able to attract large swaths of the community.”

But the festival didn’t try to just give audiences what they wanted. It also offered music they didn’t want — contemporary classical music.

Hipp says that as a major educational institution, the University of Miami has a responsibility to fulfill, and he was determined that the school would play a role in cultivating new works and bringing challenging musical experiences to its students and Miami audiences. Festival Miami, for example, presented the world premiere of the String Quartet No. 4 by the eminent American composer Elliott Carter.

Other works given their world premieres at Festival Miami include Frank Ticheli’s Symphony No. 1, Thomas Sleeper’s Horn Concerto and String Quartet No. 2, Roberto Sierra’s Symphony No. 2, David Maslanka’s Mass and Michael Daugherty’s Labyrinth of Love.

“We presented several premieres because we thought that people shy away from premieres because they don’t draw large audiences,” Hipp says. “But universities have an obligation to do that if no one else is going to do it.”

Sam Pilafian, one of the nation’s leading tuba players and a founding member of the Empire Brass, who will be performing in Festival Miami with his Boston Brass ensemble, says he is optimistic about attracting young listeners to classical music.

Pilafian himself grew up playing both jazz and classical music. He worked with Leonard Bernstein, the composer and conductor who, more than nearly anyone else, bridged the divide between classical and popular music. Bernstein, of course, made landmark recordings of Mahler and many other composers, composed successfully for Broadway and put on televised young people’s concerts.

The Boston Brass concert will present a mix of classical, Broadway and movie music, with the second half devoted to selections chosen by an audience vote. While younger listeners have never had a wider variety of tastes, he believes classical music holds a stronger position than many might think among listeners with hundreds of pieces of music on their smart phones.

“The generation coming into adulthood now, they have been pushing buttons and instantly consuming music as early as they can remember,” he said. “And they tend to be eclectic. Almost every one of them has a few classical pieces that mean an awful lot to them.”

But the instant music, the tendency of everyone to text and check messages every few minutes, has created a generation without the ability to sit still as audiences of the past have.

“My generation unfortunately has no patience and no attention span,” says Adams, the student cellist. “Even me. I listened to classical music my entire life, and it’s really difficult to go to a concert where they’ve programmed two symphonies or three full string quartets.”

As long as the concerts don’t require anyone to sit for too long, she says, bringing in genre-spanning music will help.

“I think Dean Berg bringing someone in like Ben Folds, who’s doing this great crossover thing, is a great idea,” she said. “People who would never listen to classical music are going to come to this concert and hear that concerto. It will be the gateway drug concert, hopefully, for some people.”

Festival Miami opens 8 p.m. Friday at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall, 1314 Miller Dr., Coral Gables, with Thomas Sleeper leading the Frost Symphony Orchestra in Alan Hovhaness’s ‘And God Created Great Whales,’ Howard Hansons’s Symphony No. 5 and Philip Lasser’s piano concerto ‘The Circle and the Child’ with soloist Simone Dinnerstein. The festival runs through Nov. 7. For more information, call 305-284-4940. or visit