New World Symphony opens season with circus animation and stirring Tchaikovsky
Cartoon elephants thumped across the screens mounted above the stage, as the New World Symphony opened its 25th anniversary season Saturday with a concert that ranged from the world premiere of a new video to a magnificent performance of a Tchaikovsky symphony.
The orchestra, composed of recent conservatory graduates, turns over about a third of its members every year, as their three-year fellowships end and they go on to jobs in the professional world. While Saturday’s performance wasn’t note-perfect, the orchestra performed in an assured, energetic and precise manner that indicated the Miami Beach ensemble is in good shape for the coming season.
The concert at New World Center began with the traditional season-opener, The Star-Spangled Banner, with artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas inviting the audience to sing along and conducting them with the excitement of a man leading Beethoven’s Fifth.
After that came the world premiere of a video created to accompany a performance of Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, a short work composed in 1942 for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for performance by ballet dancers and elephants. Such a work doesn’t demand to be treated with reverence, and it wasn’t. The animated video by Emily Eckstein, who recently received a master’s degree in animation from the University of Southern California, showed scenes from a circus, with a tightrope walker and a frustrated ringmaster trying to coax a performance out of an elephant that prefers to sit and eat apples.
The highly stylized animations were more distracting than interesting, showing ho-hum circus situations that weren’t particularly entertaining. But there were some sharp disagreements among audience members about the success of the animation, and anything that provokes lively discussion has to have something going for it.
Stravinsky’s Petrushka, one of a trio of ballets that established the composer’s reputation in Paris just before World War I, drew a lively, richly colored performance from the orchestra. In this story of puppets that come to life and display human feelings, Tilson Thomas emphasized the work’s theatrical nature, and despite the absence of dancers or sets, it never felt like just a symphony by another name. The performance was full of vividness and brilliance, with shimmering strings and plenty of solo turns for winds and brass. Particularly fine was the solo flute playing of Melanie Lançon.
Sinister sounds in the lower winds portrayed a magician’s mistreatment of Petrushka. The fight between two of the puppets came off in frantically fast string playing that almost felt about to go out of control, although articulation remained precise throughout. When the story calls for a peasant to enter with a bear, you could feel it in the thumping cellos and basses. There were eerie and dramatic silences. Textures were extremely transparent, with attention given to little motifs in winds and brass that get buried in other performances. During the performance, a few words appeared on the screens above the stage that quickly and effectively told what was happening in the plot.
The finest performance of the evening was the most traditional, a stirring performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Conducting without a score, Tilson Thomas drew from the orchestra a performance that left little of the work’s powerful emotional content unexpressed. There were a couple of prominent glitches, notably some bobbling on the horn and trumpet in two accounts of the “fate” motif that punctuates the symphony.
But these were anomalies in an otherwise tight performance. There was unbridled nervous energy in the pulsing melody that follows the introductory fanfare. Tilson Thomas took the orchestra to a great climax before the restatement of the fate motif, bringing out the yearning, forward-driving quality of the long melodies.
The long theme of the slow second movement was played with great sensitivity on oboe and bassoon. The third movement featured virtuoso work in the winds as they skillfully and accurately played Tchaikovsky’s quick figurations. The last movement was exhilarating, the strings, violins especially, playing with knife-edge precision and articulation in high-speed passages. Trombones and tuba were weighted, deep and forceful in passages that cut cleanly through the sound of the surrounding orchestra without burying it in brass.
New World has a busy nine months of world premieres, guest conductors and big-name soloists to look forward to, and Saturday’s concert was a fine start to the season.
The New World Symphony repeats the program 2 p.m. Sunday at New World Center in Miami Beach. nws.edu, 800-597-3331.
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Sun Oct 7, 2012
at 12:55 pm