Behind the Scenes of SoundScape at New World Symphony
Unfortunately, my video was cut about a minute short because my battery ran out. Low tech interview in a high-tech venue.
On the day of the New World Symphony’s season premiere, I had the pleasure of hanging out with one of our forum members, Robert Toledo, who just happens to be Director of Audio Services at this music performance and education institution in South Beach.
Toledo moved to Miami Beach last year to take on his new role. He participated in our community forum to seek guidance before relocating from Massachusetts, where he worked at Boston University and recorded some concerts at Symphony Hall.
He has always been involved with music. “I played the violin since third grade,” he said. “But later I became a stereo head and loved ZZ Top. When compact disk technology came out, I was fascinated with light being used to convert sound. I would have been a DJ, but saw an ad with a mixing board for Berklee College of Music and went this route.”
Our forum friend was kind enough to give me a behind-the-scenes tour of the New World Center building, a formidable structure by world renown architect Frank Gehry that opened earlier this year. Commissioned by the symphony to expand and further modernize—its previous home was at the quaint, art deco Lincoln Theater around the corner—the building is a not only a sight to behold, but a marvel of audio, video and Internet technology.
MARRIAGE OF TECHNOLOGY AND MUSIC
While South Florida may seem to lag behind major tech hubs like Silicon Valley, this $160 million state-of-the-art building should definitely be considered a gem in South Florida’s technology culture. And in terms of Miami Beach, it brings locals and tourists alike an opportunity to experience classical and contemporary music in a variety of formats, including traditional paid subscriptions, but also many free or low-cost performances.
The New World Symphony is actually a 23-year old orchestral academy, so the New World Center is also a music laboratory campus, hosting practice rooms in addition to a concert hall, administrative space and a reception rooftop garden all rolled into one 100,000 square foot building.
As well, the symphony is part of the Internet2—a digital network that is only available to select educational and government institutions. Think of it this way: the regular Internet we all work on is a bicycle; Internet2 is a rocket ship.
Internet2 provides the symphony fellows—all of them professional graduates on their way to orchestral jobs—a digital super highway to study virtually with coaches abroad with very little lag time in sound and video and even better, not having to book a flight. This kind of finessed, high-tech distance learning is part of the organization’s mission. It’s important that the sound be crystal clear so nothing is lost when interpreting musical pitch, tonality and texture.
The ultimate goal of training is performance and what better way to reach a wider audience than through technology? The New World Center utilizes high-tech outside its physical boundaries in more ways than one.
The granddaddy here is the trademarked WALLCAST, which projects what’s happening inside the hall to a huge 7,000 foot wall outside in SoundScape—a 2.5 acre park that replaced an old parking lot with a lawn, trees and vine pergolas that will hopefully fill up once the bougainvilleas are well established. It’s a high-tech, tropical musical garden.
Not only is the technology groundbreaking, but it also breaks a huge barrier in community access, which I believe is a profound shift in the way people think about classical music. It’s no longer some exclusive, snooty enterprise; it’s music for the masses.
A similar program exists at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, as well as with the Los Angeles Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl, but this one in Miami is very unique and fresh state-of-the-art.
Here in South Beach, where tawdry and gaudy is often the norm in entertainment, WALLCAST is a breath of fresh air that can save the island from sinking into deep cultural oblivion. This isn’t shallow; it’s deep.
BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, IT’S ALSO REALLY FUN
Some symphony aficionados are quite enthusiastic about their elaborate WALLCAST picnics. On opening night, one regular group had set up a small table complete with tablecloth, flowers in vases, candles, wine glasses and gourmet food. Another group had arrived about two hours before the concert to secure the best seat in the house, which is right smack in the middle of the prime listening area. (To find it, look for Toledo or any audio engineer sitting at a table with a laptop and mixing board.)
It was pouring rain intermittently on opening night, but that still didn’t affect the loyal SoundScape audience. Umbrellas popped open from time to time, but no one budged.
What most surprised me about the audience is that people were civilized and downright nice. My event neighbors offered to share wine and slices of pumpkin pie for no particular reason other than just being friendly. I’m hoping that I’ll experience the same small town feel when I attend my next WALLCAST. Miami needs this desperately.
SUPERBOWL OF CLASSICAL MUSIC
During my first WALLCAST experience, I enjoyed superlative sound from speakers hidden in giant tubes surrounding the prime listening area. It was if I was sitting inside the hall and cars driving by on 17th street didn’t distract from the quality.
The video quality was just as impressive. It’s almost better than sitting inside the hall, because you see camera angles that regular audience members might miss, though video projection capability is possible indoors as well.
Think classical music that’s larger than life but up close and personal. One camera was set up just under the bridge of a double bass, so we could literally see the bow moving across the strings. Another one captured the guest pianist’s expression with a close-up. Yet another focused on the delicate hand movements of the harpist.
If you don’t know classical music, this is orchestra 101. If you do (I used to play bassoon in high school symphonic band), then it’s thrilling.
Expert directing from the video control booth made the experience quite intimate. By the time the evening was over, I felt as if I knew the musicians and they had performed for me personally, even though I was sitting outdoors with several hundred people.
This is what I scribbled in my notebook: “WALLCAST classical music Superbowl on steroids … only thing missing slow motion replays.”
MY AFTERNOON WITH THE AUDIO DIRECTOR
My jaw kept dropping with every technology room that Toledo showed me in a span of two hours—that’s how long it took to see everything. I was particularly lucky, because I could then appreciate how much work it takes to make WALLCAST a glitch-free reality.
Miles and miles of fiber optic cable, as well as servers protected in cold, air-conditioned spaces, reminded me of HAL from 2001 Space Odyssey, except that these master computer “brains” are in service of art and technology. They also support the internal audio and video communications systems in the building.
The bowels of the New World Center consist of geek hardware and software heaven, though you’d never know it just by glancing at the sleek and curvy acoustic “sails” in the musical hall or the spacious ground floor lobby.
This behind-the-scenes tech isn’t cookie cutter, rote work. There are so many nuances to sound; it’s not only science but also very subtle art form. Toledo showed me a tiny microphone that was placed on the belly of the harp, because that instrument would have a solo during the concert and this would help make it more audible outside during the WALLCAST.
His relationship to the sound here is intimate. When he first arrived, he had to analyze every nook and cranny of the hall, which was designed by Nagata acoustic architects from Japan.
“A Mahler performance has big sound, which has to be tempered in a hall this size,” he said. “A chamber concert lets the hall breath a bit more.”
Microphones have to be placed for optimal sound for inside the hall, of course, even when there is no WALLCAST. There are several dangling from high above the ceiling that you might not even notice and they mustn’t interfere with camera positions.
It’s all in a day’s work for Toledo, as affable a geek as you’ll ever meet, very patiently going over so many technical details, some of which, quite frankly, were over my head.
Toledo’s office, one of the larger ones at the New World Center, doesn’t even have a desk and looks like a recording studio. It’s from here that he works his magic, along with the other tech staff at the symphony, producing archival recordings, voice-overs and whatever the organization needs for sound. Toledo also mentors an audio technique apprentice, which is one of the fellowships available at the symphony.
When I sat outside with Toledo during the WALLCAST, he controlled all of this hugely complex, mind-boggling wiring and gadgetry from a simple laptop and a small mixing board. To my ears, the performance was flawless. Toledo had his own minor critiques, but you’d expect that from anyone who is a master.
A moving performance by pianist Javier Perianes of Robert Schumann’s Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 was soft when it needed to be. And the brass from Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta was absolutely exhilarating.
I can’t finish this article without disclosing that I used to manage government and foundation grants for the New World Symphony. As a freelance writer, that was the only full-time job I ever held down and I only left because I wanted to pursue my creative journalism. Personally, I think New World Symphony is the best thing to happen to Miami since Columbus discovered America. Cheeky, I know. But that’s the only phrase I can come up with.
I worked on a technology and arts grant for from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was, ironically, part of the seed money that made this fledgling eventually take off and fly. There were other grants in my portfolio as well, many of which portended this then future endeavor. I remember writing about Michael Tilson Thomas’ vision to bring technology in service of music education, which the symphony did back then and continues to do today, not only for its orchestral fellows, but also for children in local schools.
At the risk of sounding maudlin, I’ll admit I had to hold back a tear of joy to see that the work I had done for the development department had continued with consecutive grant writers to help make this happen through what I’m sure is a labyrinth of words and proposals. And of course, it’s never the effort of one person, but of a staff dedicated to the one cause and years of hard work. Maintaining a non-profit of this caliber is no easy business.
There’s a little piece of me in this building, but I promise you this article isn’t biased. Go see a WALLCAST or concert for yourself.
IF YOU GO
The New World Center is located in the heart of South Beach off Lincoln Road between Pennsylvania and Drexel. SoundScape is open to the public all day, every day and is a beautiful green urban space.
Visit NWS.EDU for more information about tickets, programs events, musical WALLCAST schedule and the SoundScape cinema series, which is part of the City of Miami Beach’s Arts in the Park program. You can see movies, too, but Toledo doesn’t run that program.
GOING SOCIAL AND MOBILE
The symphony is also going social, using technology to connect with its audience. During the WALLCAST, ambassadors walk around the crowd handing out cards with information about how to connect.
Use twitter hashtag #wallcast to ask questions to a virtual usher from @nwsymphony. Text WALLCAST to 91011 to receive a mobile program on your smart phone, which is chock full of information – a great green idea, since it replaces the need for a program book and it gives audience members an opportunity to provide instant feedback.
MY INSIDER TIPS FOR OUT-OF-TOWN VISITORS
Looking for a more sophisticated alternative to clubs? Catch a performance here and then enjoy a drink or dinner at one of dozens of restaurants on Lincoln Road. I recommend people watching at the Van Dyke Café, which serves good, reasonably priced food. That side of Lincoln Road is also less touristy.
Also, check out the new PULSE experience at the New World Center. The space transforms into hip, night-club style setting.
For WALLCAST, if you want to picnic shop at Whole Foods or Epicure and prepare your own basket with wine, beer and food from the hot and cold foods delis, or ask your concierge for the nearest market to your hotel. Also, nearly every South Beach restaurant will offer dishes to go. WALLCAST is a great idea for a casual, romantic date.
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