Beyond the beach

In Miami, you can have fun in the sun -- and then experience the finest of the fine arts.


Burt Wolf
August 3, 2000 11:28PM (UTC)

The men and women who started developing Miami and Miami Beach at the beginning of the 20th century decided that the best way to attract attention to their community and profit from its growth was to project a single coordinated image: that of a playground in the sun where visitors could live it up. And they spent the entire century telling that story to the world.

For over 80 years Miami promoted fun in the sun and for most of those years it was a complete and accurate portrayal. That, however, is no longer the case. In January 1995, over 200,000 people stretched out on Miami Beach, but this time they didn't come for the sun and the surf. They came to hear Luciano Pavarotti. Pavarotti and other superstars of the classical music world like Placido Domingo, Itzhak Perlman, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Mikhail Baryshnikov have all added Miami to their concert tours.

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This cultural evolution might never have happened if not for a visionary named Judith Drucker, a dynamic devotee of the arts who is credited with being the first person to bringing world-class performing artists to Florida.

Drucker was trained as an opera singer at Philadelphia's Curtiss Institute and the Juilliard School of Music, but like so many women of her generation, she put aside career ambitions and devoted herself to being a wife and a mother. As the children got older she realized that she could return to the arts -- not so much as a performer but as a presenter.

"In 1967, I went to my rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom," explains Drucker, "and asked him for funding to bring a young musician down from New York to play for the congregation. I hadn't met the kid but my friends in New York told me he was very talented. His name was Pinchas Zukerman and the concert was sold out."

Zukerman, the chamber musician and conductor, went on to become one of the great stars of classical music and Drucker became one of its great presenters. Today she is the president of the Concert Association of Florida and continues to bring musical artists, orchestras, ballet companies and folklore dance groups to South Florida.

As the Miami classical arts community grew, it not only became a place where great artists came to perform, but also a place where young artists came to train. The old Lincoln movie theater at the heart of the art deco district on Miami Beach has been converted into the headquarters of the New World Symphony. It is North America's only full-time national training center for young orchestral musicians who want to prepare for professional careers. Each year 30 to 40 spots open up in the New World Symphony and over 1,000 young musicians apply. If they are lucky enough to be accepted, they get a three-year fellowship, a place to live, a weekly allowance and the training they will need for a shot at the big time. More than 75 percent of the students who have graduated from New World have gone on to full-time positions with some of the most important orchestras in the United States and Europe.

The idea for the New World Symphony came from the conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas. He convinced Ted Arison, the founder of Carnival Cruise Lines, to put up the seed money to make it a reality. Tilson-Thomas is the symphony's artistic director and conductor as well as the musical director of the San Francisco Symphony and the principal guest conductor of the London Symphony. Visitors who come to Miami Beach between mid-October and the beginning of May can stop in and hear his work with the New World Symphony.

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Miami's interest in classical music has extended into classic dance. The Miami City Ballet is quickly becoming one of the most respected ballet companies in the world. It was founded in 1986 by Edward Villella, the first American-born male star of the New York City Ballet.

"My mother was a frustrated dancer who sent my sister to ballet classes in the hopes that that she would fulfill my mother's dream," says Villella, "I was allowed to play baseball -- until I was knocked unconscious by a fastball. At that point, my mother decided that I needed more supervision and began dragging me along to my sister's dance class. I was supposed to sit quietly and amuse myself, but I was a very physical kid and I ended up disrupting the class. In self-defense, the teacher put me in tights and into the class. I loved moving my body and at the age of 10 joined the School of American Ballet. My father owned a trucking business in New York's garment district and the idea of his son jumping around in tights was not exactly what he had in mind. So I was sent off to the New York Maritime Academy."

But the sea was not for Villella. He was soon back on the stage, eventually becoming the principal dancer for the New York City Ballet under the direction of George Balanchine. Villella became the first American male dancer to perform with the Royal Danish Ballet and the only American ever asked to dance an encore at the Bolshoi in Moscow.

Today the Miami City Ballet has over 15,000 subscribers and over 10,000 single-ticket buyers each season. It appears all over the world and is busy creating works that incorporate the social dances of this century into the traditional ballet of the past. To see the Miami City Ballet in action is to witness the future of ballet in America.

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Another organization that will give you a look at the artistic future of America is Jubilate. It started out in 1995 when a group of friends put together a vocal group to help celebrate Black History Month. Since then it has expanded into the Jubilate Vocal Ensemble and the Jubilate Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra is one of only three in the United States that is primarily managed and staffed by minority musicians. The members of Jubilate promote, preserve, perform and record works by African-Americans and compositions based on African, Latin and Caribbean traditions. Most of the musicians are freelance professionals who realize that even though the major musical organizations in Miami like the Florida Philharmonic or the New World Symphony make a great effort to reach out to minorities, there are not enough positions to meet the expectations of the young musical talents in Miami's minority communities.

But Miami's interest in the creative arts is not limited to music and dance. The city has a number of outstanding art museums. As a matter of fact, the creative community most available to the tourist is made up of painters and sculptures. The ArtCenter on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road is a series of storefronts that were converted by the city into studios for artists who were long on talent but short on cash. The public is welcome to come in to the studios and chat with the artists -- and of course make a purchase.

The ArtCenter is one place to meet the artists who live and work in Miami, but tourists can also visit many of them in their private studios. For example, visitors can drive into Coconut Grove -- an artist colony that is home to the Coconut Grove Arts Festival, the largest such gathering in the U.S.

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One of the most interesting manifestations of Miami's interest in art and design is the recent development of the Miami Design District. It consists of over 50 stores packed with some of the finest home furnishings and, unlike most other design centers in the United States, it is open to the public. Traveling to Miami to shop for furniture may sound strange but when you consider the range of stuff available in this district, sun, surf and a sofa makes an interesting combination.


Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt Wolf.com.

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