Miami centre stage

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In the construction frenzy in Miami today, high-rises loom wherever one turns, but not all involve office buildings and condominiums.

In October the Carnival Center, the city’s new forum for the performing arts, opened near what was once a big central intersection. Both constituent buildings, the Knight Concert Hall and the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House, bowed within days of each other.

César Pelli, the Center’s architect, says that because Miami is “so flat” he wants to give the city “mountains of the arts”. Both buildings have off-white granite exteriors with individual façades – 77 in all, each culminating in a point akin to the side of a house. Although some regard the result as contrived, the style is handsomely contemporary, neither too conservative nor too idiosyncratic. The project cost $460m .

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, says the Center presents “an opportunity to transform the city’s image of itself, since it has an elegance other places don’t have”. Unlike many northern cities, Miami has no imposing structures that the city can identify with. The Center may fill this void.

But, as with the high-rises, one wonders how the Center will be filled. With the new opera house the Florida Grand Opera has modestly increased its season from five productions to six. But following the disbanding of the Florida Philharmonic in 2003, Miami has lacked a professional orchestra. Can a city that won’t even support an orchestra supply an audience for the new facility? The Center is banking on the region’s continued growth and its own lustre for an affirmative answer.

So far, many offerings have had a frankly popular appeal. The Center is making a play for the area’s Hispanic population by programming composers such as Osvaldo Golijov. But it is also counting on the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the world’s best, for a catalytic force. The orchestra has agreed to three annual weekend residencies for 10 years.

The project represents an unprecedented association between a big US orchestra and a city other than its home. And it also serves the orchestra’s needs. According to the executive director Gary Hansen, the orchestra has a higher market penetration in its home region, for both ticket sales and contributions, than that of any other in the US – clear evidence that its quality is appreciated locally. Yet that also means that for future growth the orchestra had best look to other markets.

Thus, like many a northerner, the Cleveland Orchestra will now winter in Miami. And it brings along a full panoply of operations. As the music director Franz Welser-Möst observed, “all artistic institutions – not just those in the US but in Europe too – must focus on education.” Accordingly, Cleveland Orchestra personnel and guest artists give master classes at the University of Miami School of Music. And orchestra players join Miami’s New World Symphony – brainchild of the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas for training young musicians – in “side-by-side” readings of orchestral literature. The New World Symphony’s prestige is such that a facility designed by Frank Gehry is in the works for it.

Although some have charged that the Clevelanders’ “cultural carpetbagging” will undermine efforts to re-create a local orchestra, the sheer quality of their first concert supplied a powerful counterforce. Knight Hall’s acoustics, masterminded by Russell Johnson of Artec, has also met with a favourable reception. As with other Artec halls, the sound is bright and stresses clarity.

The programme was suitably festive, with a Beethoven Ninth led by Welser-Möst that struck a happy medium between the fleeter, lighter-textured Beethoven now in vogue and weighty traditional readings. The high-powered vocal quartet consisted of Measha Brueggergosman, Kelley O’Connor, Frank Lopardo and René Pape. Since the mezzo has little to do in the Ninth, it was fitting that O’Connor was also heard in Welser-Möst’s engaging account of Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony No 1. Bernstein’s works deserve their day in the sun after the condescension showed to them in his lifetime, but will works such as “Jeremiah,” with its Hebrew mournfulness and Latin, West Side Story rhythms, stand the test of time? It’s a safe bet, though, that many of those rhythms will enliven the Carnival Center in future.

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