Musical philosophy and hero worship, majestically served by New World

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Through the centuries, the hero has been a central icon in German literature, bardic stanzas, paintings and tapestries–as well as in the country’s music, from the Christ-centered devotion of Bach’s masses to the mythic, domestically challenged gods of Wagner’s Valhalla.

 Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony presented a pair of large-scale works by two German composers, Beethoven and Richard Strauss, in their first season appearance at the Adrienne Arsht Center Saturday night.

 The German heroic tradition has had its unsettling manifestations as well, not least the unsavory use that Hitler and the Third Reich made of Nietzsche’s concept of the “Superman,” outlined in his Also Sprach Zarathustra.

 Richard Strauss was more intrigued by the intellectual and musical implications of Nietzsche’s philosophy as reflected in his free-form riff of the same name, crafted as a tone poem for large orchestra cast in a long single movement.

 The majestic introduction makes the work’s three-note motif (C-G-C) gloriously manifest but even more ingenius are Strauss’s  various permutations, as with the monastic spiritual solace in Of the Backworldsmen, or the impersonal fugue in Of Science.  

 Yet rather than grim or dour, Strauss’s retooled Nietzsche is often exuberant and even whimsical, not least with the dance of the Superman morphing into a lilting, violin-led Viennese waltz.

 The intensity of Saturday’s performance at the Knight Concert Hall can be gauged by the fact that Tilson Thomas’s baton went flying into the first row during the opening sunrise (a spare was quickly and unobtrusively secured). 

 Zarathustra‘s grand moments made their impact with a sonorous and majestic opening, and a notably tempestuous Of Joys and Passions. Yet in addition to the conductor’s seamless direction of what can be an episodic work, most striking was the elegance and tonal beauty of the orchestral sound, notably the glowing violins in Of the Great Longing and the burnished lower strings in the fugue. Katherine Bormann was a polished violin soloist, and if her Tanzlied could have used a bit more swagger, the  concertmaster’s playing was immaculate in the exposed final bars.  Here too, MTT was at his finest, as was the entire ensemble, at conveying the unresolved coda as the music fades away, lingering questioningly between two keys.

 Beethoven originally dedicated his Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon, famously crossing out the dedication in anger upon learning the French general had crowned himself emperor.

 Even with the specific heroic protagonist excised from the manuscript, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony introduced a new epic scale, expressive range and complexity that bewildered audiences at its 1804 premiere.

 Three years ago, Tilson Thomas opened the New World season with a memorable Eroica, but Saturday’s performance was finer still.  Even coming after the brilliance and sonic splendor of Strauss’s tone poem, MTT and the musicians managed to put across the power, emotional extremes and fist-shaking audacity of the Eroica magnificently.

 Tilson Thomas often gets his due as an interpreter of Mahler, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky but his Beethoven is on the same inspirational level. The conductor’s boldly outlined style is especially well suited to this work, shearing off the accumulated bombast and heaviness and resulting in a lithe, incisive reading.

 While keenly dramatic with firm momentum, the performance often had an airy grace and lightness, with springy rhythms and lean tonal refinement. The funeral march was especially fine, flowing and divested of excessive rhetoric with textures clear, the music unfolding naturally and the climax having cumulative impact.

 The scherzo was lively and vivacious with nimble dynamic marking by the horns in the trio. The finale rounded off the performance quite gloriously, the New World members delivering the music with muscle and refinement, MTT seeming to encapsulate and convey the expressive essence of each variation in his body and gestures.

[Photo: Craig Hall]

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Sun Oct 26, 2008
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