MTT and Ax close year with powerful Brahms and gracious Beethoven

By Lawrence A. Johnson

The New World Symphony’s final orchestral program of 2008 centers on cornerstone German repertoire, with two works by Beethoven and Brahms that, surprisingly, have been infrequently presented by the Miami Beach orchestra.

 With artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium and Emanuel Ax as guest soloist, Saturday’s combined star-power resulted in a sold-out house at the Lincoln Theatre. (No tickets are available for Sunday’s matinee as well, but these concerts are being taped for future webcast.)

  Ax appeared early in the New World’s life performing Shostakovich and, while he has been a regular South Florida visitor, the popular pianist has not performed with the Miami Beach ensemble for many years, and it was good to have him back.

 With its mix of vigor, wit and stark introspection, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor can handle a variety of approaches. MTT and Ax displayed an easy artistic camaraderie with the give-and-take between piano and orchestra unerringly natural and seamless.  As solo protagonist, Ax displayed his customary fluency and gracious musicianship, and was at his best in the bumptious finale, his vivacity matched by the dynamic accompaniment of MTT and the orchestra.

Yet for all his refined qualities, it was hard not to feel that Ax’s Beethoven is amiable almost to a fault. Even in this relatively unclouded work, there should surely be more edge beyond an uncomplicated bonhomie. This lack was most palpable in the Largo — arguably, Beethoven’s most beautiful concerto slow movement — where after a rushed phrasing of the yielding main theme, the soloist seemed content to glide on  the music’s graceful surface without exploring its expressive depths. Some highly variable wind playing didn’t help.

 Tilson Thomas is so convincing an interpreter of such a wide variety of composers, that it’s striking when his approach fails to pay dividends in familiar repertoire. In the past MTT’s Brahms has often fallen into that category, appearing a bit slick and over-driven, more of a Teutonic Tchaikovsky.

 The powerful performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 presented Saturday night, however, offered one of Tilson Thomas’s most successful Brahms outings to date. The intense drama and tragic overtones of this music seem to fit MTT the best of all the German composer’s four symphonies.  Rarely will one hear the opening movement launched with such massive command, the pounding timpani and robust string playing driving the music with a bristling intensity that was sustained throughout the long epic sweep.  

 Only the Andante proved less successful. MTT’s approach to Brahms’ dark rumination seems external to the music’s heart, presented more as a series of felicitous scoring opportunities than a deeply felt expression of Brahms’s interior melancholy.

 Otherwise the performance was unassailable, with the third movement as lightly sprung and grazioso as one could wish. The roiling drama reached its peak in the finale, with a  majestic statement of the climactic horn theme—after a momentary hesitation— and the cumulative momentum leading to a thrilling, life-affirming coda.

 The evening began with the Bunte Suite of Ernst Toch. Written in the 1920s, the suite is a work of its time and not reflective of Toch’s more substantive music to come. Poulenc and Satie had a lighter touch and more convincing way with this kind of froth, and Toch comes across as overly earnest in his attempts at being whimsical; such elements as the repeated motif in the Intermezzo for winds are more irritating than amusing, and playing just four of the six movements, as was done Saturday, seemed like plenty.

 As with Wellington’s Victory last week, the New World’s young conducting fellow Edward Abrams drew vital and incisive playing from the orchestra, showing his ability to elicit polished, exacting performances of some less-than-stellar music.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at the Lincoln Theatre, 541 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. The concert is sold out, but turn-back tickets may be available. 305-673-3331;

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Sun Dec 14, 2008
at 12:14 pm
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