The day’s light is fading behind the Miami skyline, the buildings glittering diamond-like against a velvet sky as cars begin a parade of arrival along the driveway of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. A team of parking valets in black attire awaits patrons, who step out of their chariots wearing sports jackets or suit coats, long dresses and high heels.
Several decades in the making, the Center and its two massive buildings straddle Biscayne Boulevard like enormous ships anchored at a dock. With all that it offers inside – from Broadway shows to international symphony orchestras, from opera and classical ballet to the biggest names in jazz, comedy and rock music – the Center has indeed become an anchor of another kind.
The 570,000-square-foot Center has been an important addition to a phenomenon some are calling a cultural renaissance that is putting Miami on the map as a world art hub. Planned since the 1970s, it opened in 2006, soon earning a nickname as Miami’s “New Town Square.”
On the north side of downtown Miami, the Center sits in the middle of a once-blighted corridor that is exploding with development. A few blocks south on Biscayne Boulevard, the $131 million Perez Art Museum of Miami opened in late 2013, and several miles north unfolds the trifecta of Wynwood, Midtown and the Design District, with their public murals, popular artwalks, world-famous restaurants, collections, designers and luxury condos. The Center also incorporates the launching of world premiere and cross-medium performances in conjunction with the annual Art Basel Miami Beach blockbuster gallery and art show.
In addition to those options, residents and visitors now can find performances at the Center that might have bypassed Miami in years past – including touring productions of Broadway shows like “Les Miserables” and “The Lion King.”
“There was no venue to have that type of show before,” says Suzette Espinosa, the Center’s assistant vice president of public relations.
The distinctive Latin American and international flair of Miami also allows for unique programing – such as the wildly popular annual Flamenco Festival, with dancers, singers and musicians brought from Spain, and the free Gospel Sundays concerts held several times a year, when the Center’s resident choir performs with big-name gospel singers as well as powerful local church choirs from Miami’s diverse neighborhoods.
“You can’t just put that together in a lot of communities in the United States,” Espinosa says. “But it works really well in Miami.”
On this night, as patrons file into the Center for a concert by Aaron Neville and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, they are seeing only part of the magic here. Visitors can enjoy a full tour of the facility at noon each Monday and Saturday.
On the tour, they will be taken into both buildings on either side of Biscayne Boulevard, their eyes instantly drawn skyward in both lobbies, with 10-story glass main walls and adjacent walls adorned with Art Deco-style portholes, all designed by architect Cesar Pelli. They will see terrazzo floors engraved with dayscapes and nightscapes, as well as etched glass railings along the lobbies – all by artist Jose Bedia.
In the Ziff Ballet Opera House – home to the Miami City Ballet, the Florida Grand Opera and the Center’s Broadway in Miami Series – visitors will walk through the hushed house with its 2,400 green plush seats, rows of side boxes, orchestra seating and four upper tiers, staring agape at the artistically swirling acoustical dome on the ceiling. They will approach the massive stage, home to productions such as “Romeo and Juliet,” deep and wide enough to easily hold 100 tables capable of seating 1,000 people.
They will pass through Prelude by Barton G restaurant, where, before or after performances, patrons and non-ticket holders can mingle to enjoy entrées of Moroccan chicken, wild mushroom ravioli, crab-baked linefish and other fine fare. Along the way, they will pass Art in Public Places on the walls, including the colorful Ways of Performing mural by Cundo Bermudez, and smaller performance spaces, like the Carnival Studio Theater, a 200-seat black box that’s home to short plays and regional theater.
A pedestrian bridge takes visitors across Biscayne Boulevard to the Knight Concert Hall, which has 2,200 seats, is home to the New World Symphony and has hosted everyone from Smokey Robinson to Whoopi Goldberg to Natalie Merchant. They will tour dressing rooms and lounges and see a reverb chamber that cushions and blocks the sounds of passing planes, thunderstorms and other outside noise.
The architecture, the art on the walls and the performances themselves comprise only part of the alchemy here. A great part lies in what is taking place on this evening well ahead of showtime, one floor below the Knight Concert Hall.
“The most important thing about New Orleans style is the drumming!” calls out Melton Mustafa, during a spirited tutorial on New Orleans jazz as part of the Jazz Roots: A Larry Rosen Jazz Series that is part of the Center’s numerous education programs.
“When the fast part comes up, I want everyone to stand up and get into the groove,” Mustafa, a prominent jazz musician and music professor at Florida Memorial University, tells the 150 high school jazz students from all over Miami-Dade County. He has some gathered as a choir to his right and a cluster gathered as marching percussion with their feet to his left; two on snare and bass drum, himself on trumpet and the rest in the audience as vocal cymbals.
“I want you marching,” Mustafa says to the students to his left, smiling broadly and stomping to the beat. “I want you cymbaling,” to half of the seated students, “and the other half to do the ‘hey!’ And this is about having fun.”
When the tutorial finishes, a lecture on the history of New Orleans jazz follows by Robert Grabowski, a musician and adjunct professor at Florida International University. And then it’s time for the students to file upstairs into the front seats of the concert hall to watch the sound check of Aaron Neville’s band.
More than 30,000 Miami-Dade County school children are reached each year by the Center’s educational programs, including about 1,000 high school jazz students who enjoy the Jazz Roots series, and several hundred middle school students who attend the Center’s free Alvin Ailey dance camp each summer. Past jazz series themes have included Latin jazz, piano jazz and Brazilian jazz, often with a Q&A between students and performers before concerts.
Jairo Ontiveros, director for education and community engagement, says he has personally seen the transformation in students’ self-esteem and their blossoming creativity following the programs.
“The connection between them and the artist really hits home when they come in here,” Ontiveros says as members of the band call out friendly greetings to the students during the sound-check. Hearing about the artists’ beginnings and struggles and career path gives the students a unique inspiration. “They start to take ownership of their craft.”
High school senior and 18-year-old bass guitarist Efren Caraballo noted the impact before the students moved to higher seats, where they would be treated to the concert for free. After talking with performers during the series, he says, it’s easier to envision one day standing on a stage before all the patrons now making their way into the hall.
“They’re just normal guys like me,” Efren says. “Anything’s possible.”
IF YOU GO: The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County is located at 1300 Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. For more information, call 305-949-6722 or visit www.arshtcenter.org.