MTT and Wang open New World season with energized performances and distracting video

By David Fleshler

Michael Tilson Thomas and Yuja Wang  take a bow after the conclusion of Gershwin's Concerto in F at the New World Symphony's season-opening concert Saturday night. Photo: Rui Dias-Aidos

Michael Tilson Thomas and Yuja Wang take a bow after the conclusion of Gershwin’s Concerto in F at the New World Symphony’s season-opening concert Saturday night. Photo: Rui Dias-Aidos

The New World Symphony opened its season Saturday with a superstar pianist, a world premiere and a sold-out house.

Nineteen new members of the orchestra appeared on stage at New World Center in Miami Beach, the latest recruits from conservatories for three-year stints with an ensemble that functions as an orchestral post-graduate school. After the traditional season opener of The Star Spangled Banner, with artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas turning to conduct the audience, the orchestra gave an energetic, nuanced performance of Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella.

Hearing Tilson Thomas conduct Stravinsky is always special because the conductor represents a living link to the composer, having worked with Stravinsky as a young student in Los Angeles. From its vigorous opening, performed without a trace of the dryness that can creep into this work, the performance unfolded in true concertino style, with an array of soloists tackling cameo roles from the orchestra.

Tilson Thomas appeared to allow them considerable interpretive freedom. Concertmaster Jeffrey Dyrda gave a light, crisp account of his extensive solo part, integrating his performance with the orchestra in idiomatic fashion. Trombonist Kathryn Daugherty provided a swooping, witty performance, with a lightness and agility not often associated with that big instrument.

The world premiere was a video by Tal Rosner to accompany the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, co-commissioned by the New World Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony. In a program note, Rosner explained that he used images from each of the four cities whose orchestras commissioned the work to accompany each of the four Interludes.

And so for those for whom the opening evokes a bleak, windswept English beach, “Dawn” instead gave us the sun rising over Miami, with palm trees, boats and glimpses of skyline. For Philadelphia there were fragments of buildings and bridges flying by at high speed, broken into geometric shapes that gave the video an abstract feel. For San Francisco, there were boats, buildings and fragments of the Golden Gate Bridge.

No matter how fast the frames moved on the screens, the video was a lot less interesting than the music, with most of the images seeming to bear little relation to the sounds coming from the orchestra. The most effective segment was the final one from Los Angeles, in which the sinister, smog-shrouded skyline and speeded up traffic worked well with the menacing tones coming from the orchestra in the “Storm” Interlude.

Musically, the performance was a richly colored and brilliantly effective tribute to the composer’s work, showing that the orchestra remains in top form, even with its long summer break and squad of new recruits. From the crystal-clear opening of “Dawn,” the sweeping crescendo from the lower strings to the entire string section in “Moonlight” and the edgy, violent “Storm” interlude, the dramatic musical performance suggested enough visual imagery without the assistance of what was taking place on the screens.

The second half opened with Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, with Tilson Thomas relinquishing the baton to a young guest conductor, Andrés Lopera, music director of Oregon’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony. Extra percussionists on stage played the bongos, maracas and other instruments Gershwin heard on his Havana vacation. Although the melody occasionally got lost amid the composer’s busy orchestration, Lopera led an evocative performance with a smoky, nightclub atmosphere.

It’s likely that the most eagerly awaited part of the program was the final work, Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, with the glamorous young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. She did not disappoint.

In Gershwin’s attempt to force his bluesy, Broadway sensibility into the concerto tradition perfected in Germany and Austria, Wang played with a power and sweep that came from a feeling for the long line and the drama of the work rather than from trying to dazzle at every moment.

In the melodies early in the first movement, she played with a coolness that allowed her to release that much more power when they returned at higher volume and greater intensity. She attacked the keyboard with a fiercely controlled precision.

In passages in which she accompanied the full orchestra in Gershwin’s broad, pop-inflected themes, her kinetic, aggressive manner allowed the piano’s glinting power to cut through the orchestra.

As an encore she gave a performance of a short piano work by Tilson Thomas, an evocation of a meeting in a nightclub called You Come Here Often?

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday at New World Center., 305-673-3331.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “MTT and Wang open New World season with energized performances and distracting video”

  1. Posted Oct 06, 2013 at 3:15 pm by Bruce

    I saw her New World Symphony performance of the Gershwin Concerto in F and she is the first piano soloist I’ve ever seen in over 50 years of performing and attending piano and orchestra performances that I’ve seen a pianist have the piano score open in the harp of the piano. Apparently she does not feel secure in committing her solos to memory. At times she fumbled with a stuck page that wouldn’t turn causing a second of uncertainty that the piece might grind to a halt. All turned out well, but I found it distracting to what was otherwise a fine performance! A concert artist of this rank should commit her solos to memory and not need the score in front of her!

  2. Posted Oct 07, 2013 at 5:52 pm by Tom

    Bruce, please read Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times article from 12/31/2012 titled “Playing by Heart, With or Without a Score,” which intelligently discusses the very thing you fallaciously and egocentrically complain about.

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