MTT and New World serve up fresh and ferocious Tchaikovsky

By David Fleshler

Music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was performed by the New World Symphony Friday night at New World Center.

Music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was performed by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Friday night at New World Center.

Few composers rival Tchaikovsky in popularity. If the New World Symphony’s “Tchaikovsky Celebration,” which opened Friday in Miami Beach and repeats Saturday and Sunday, wasn’t ground-breaking in its programming, it presented polished, intensely realized performances that rediscovered the freshness and greatness of well-loved classics.

The evening began with a disappointment, when a message flashed on the screen above the stage at New World Center that the young cellist Matthew Allen had canceled his appearance for health reasons. And so instead of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, we had the composer’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture.

Under the circumstances, you might expect a less-than-polished performance of this virtuoso orchestral music. But the New World musicians are professionals, if young ones, and most, if not all, had probably performed this popular work before. Under music director Michael Tilson Thomas, who conducted without a score, they delivered a performance of great sweep, passion and excitement.

The opening chords, symbolizing the goodness of Friar Laurence, came off with shimmering warmth. The music that evokes the feud between the Montagues and Capulets was ferocious in its power, and the climactic passage in which frenzied strings zoom higher and higher over irregular hammer blows in the brass and percussion was terrific—incisive and aggressive, with an edge of violence in the string playing. The love theme, one of the most famous melodies of a composer who produced so many memorable ones, was given a radiant performance on its first appearance in the winds, and when it finally returns in the full orchestra, it was played with tremendous forward motion and longing.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, given its premiere just nine days before the composer’s death, is one of his darkest works, brimming with his inimitable melodies, yet with an overall tone of loss and leave-taking.

The lustrous performance by the New World Symphony was the highlight of the concert. All sections played with refined power and great tonal beauty in the first movement, with particularly burnished, sensitive playing in the winds, from the somber opening bassoon solo, through the ascending melodies in flute, clarinet and oboe that chase each other through the movement. After the loud chord that smashes the mood in the middle of the movement, the orchestra surged with agitated energy, with fine playing by the brass in a sonorous, shattering dialogue with the strings.

The third movement march was graceful and propulsive. The exciting ending often inspires a burst of applause because it sounds so much like the coda of a symphony, and it did so here too. From the grave opening of the final movement, full of dissonance and pain, through the sad melodies that followed, the performance moved with a finely paced sense of inevitability. At the end, as the melody returns and fades away, the march-like repeated notes in the basses were given extra prominence, lending the ending a particularly funereal tone.

The concert opened with a work led by a young German guest conductor, Christian Reif, recently appointed assistant conductor of the New York-based chamber orchestra Camerata Notturna. He walked to the podium, closed the score and conducted from memory two movements from Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard Orchestral Suite No. 2.

In “Dreams from Childhood,” he drew light, gossamer textures from the orchestra, with a theatrical style that gave the work a sense of color and drama. The opening melody of the “Baroque Dance” becomes more and more elaborately embellished, and Reif kept textures clean, giving the performance a hard-driving, purposeful energy.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at New World Center in Miami Beach.; 305-673-3331.

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Sat Feb 1, 2014
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