Miami's Symphony `Farm Team'

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS CONDUCTS MIAMI'S NEW WORLD SYMPHONY PBS, Dec. 29, 9-10 p.m., E.T. (check local listings). `WHEN I close my eyes directing the New World Symphony, I hear the sounds of a great professional orchestra. They play with such depth, maturity and polish....'' If you can get by the opening barrage of self-puffery by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, this 60-minute window into the one-year-old, Florida-based orchestra of young virtuosos unfolds with clarity, interest - and eventually insight.

From 1982 until 1987, executive director Jeffrey Babcock and Mr. Tilson Thomas talked of such an enterprise - a community of classical musicians aged 21 to 30 that could serve as a kind of national musical farm team for the nation's, even world's, orchestras. Finally, in a scenario conspicuously lacking in detail, funding came through from ``a concerned group of Miamians'' and the orchestra's existence was assured.

``For young musicians, it's a unique opportunity,'' says Anne Solti, wife of the conductor Sir Georg (whose connection in this regard is also unexplained). ``[Otherwise] you finish music school and go straight into an orchestra ... if you are lucky. A lot of people aren't lucky and this fills the gap. It trains them. It does what the repertory theatre or stock company did for the theater.''

``Sometimes I feel we're running a triple-A farm team,'' says Tilson Thomas of the students who receive beachfront housing, a weekly stipend of $300, and a travel grant to Miami from their hometown and back. In its first year of existence, nine musicians were grabbed up by professional orchestras, chamber groups, or universities. ``We get a great infield together and the major leagues come along and raid us.''

``[New World Symphony] gives me headaches,'' says orchestra manager Mark Thomas Barnard, who lost five musicians in the last eight weeks of the first season and must run continual auditions for openings. ``But the whole point of this is to place our people in professional settings.

Tilson Thomas is both star of the show and father figure to the young musicians. Previously featured on ``Great Performances'' several seasons ago, he was at 19 named music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. At 24, he became assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony. Today, besides his duties with New World Symphony, he is conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.

The young musicians are seen arriving from all corners of the United States and abroad. They are followed as they audition, practice, fly kites, jog, and even roller skate on the boardwalk. ``Practicing four hours a day isn't enough,'' says one student. ``You've got to be in great shape, too.''

They are also seen practicing on the grounds of the Art Deco Plymouth Hotel, their renovated housing on Miami Beach, and congregating at cookouts and local Miami hangouts such as Wolfies Bakery. Comradery and communication on and off stage builds orchestral unity, according to Tilson Thomas.

``We're telling these young people we're not going to baby-sit for you,'' says chamber music director Scott Nickrenz, advising one of the orchestra's many splinter groups. ``You are going to sit and work and work because you're going to go out there and play for real live people and it better be bloody good.''

Quotes like the above are the only hint of any possible gritty underside of New World Symphony. There is a surprising lack of voices outside the organization, save one Miami-based music critic: ``I felt immediately that this was going to be an orchestra worth ... hearing ... on an international level.'' Addition comments would have made the documentary more credible.

Among the liberal sprinkling of student quotes about aspiration and future competition with colleagues are the expected expressions about performance jitters and not making the grade. And there is so much emphasis on the freshness, vitality, and eagerness of young musicians that the observation becomes self-serving and heavy handed.

BUT there is a clear love of the world of classical music that comes through, as well as the desire to steer the world's most talented youth in the right direction. Though most of the actual musical footage is in rehearsal, there are long excerpts of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor (with 22-year old Joshua Bell as soloist), Janacek's ``Sinfonietta,'' and Tchaikovsky's ``Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.''

``I say to them, look, you can look at professional music and see people who've been in it for many many years - 20 or 30. Some of them are burned out, embittered. They've lost the sense of the beauty, mystery, and truth of music,'' says Tilson Thomas. Extolling the virtues of those that haven't burned out - whose lives and outlooks have grown over the years - Tilson Thomas emerges as a clear counselor for the more productive path.

``If you can keep your spirit and play for 50 years and still have your soul intact, you're the big winner. That's what New World Symphony is all about - keeping your spirit.''

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