Bell shines brightly, Mahler a mess with New World Symphony

By Lawrence A. Johnson

 The New World Symphony’s downtown concerts have become an effective recruiting poster for both classical music and the Miami Beach orchestra. The lineup of big-name soloists and accessible—but not predictable—programs are clearly drawing some new audience members even at ticket prices higher than the going rate at the Lincoln Theatre.

For the second of this season’s Arsht Center dates, the New World brought some major musical firepower with Joshua Bell as soloist and Vladimir Ashkenazy on the podium Saturday evening at the Knight Concert Hall.

Camille Saint-Saens is one of those composers who appears to have been shot out of the canon, with his once-regular concert-hall appearances now rather infrequent, limited largely to pops outings of Danse macabre and the Bacchanale from Samson et Dalila.  

 That’s unfortunate because even if the French composer’s music is not profound, his melodic gift and unerring sense of craft deserve more frequent performances, so props to Joshua Bell for serving up Saint-Saens’ Violin Concerto No. 3.

The work is almost Mozartian in thematic richness, and wholly characteristic in its fiery bravura and melting lyricism, qualities that fit Bell’s style like a well-tailored glove. Vital and communicative , Bell’s blend of laser-like sinew and tonal sweetness are well suited to this music, and he conveyed the defiant toughness of the outer movements as much as the melancholy tenderness. The central Andantino was particularly inspired, with evocative wind contributions from the New World players, the performance rounded off with a bravura coda by Bell and the orchestra.

 Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 has become a sonic test drive of sorts for the Knight Concert Hall with performances by Franz Welser-Most and the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia, and on Saturday, Ashkenazy and the New World.

Ashkenazy has rightfully enjoyed a reputation as one of the top instrumentalists of the 20th century, and for many he remains the greatest living Rachmaninoff pianist. In the last two decades, he has concentrated more on conducting, with a string of distinguished recordings and international posts.

 In his take on Mahler’s First Symphony with its blend of bucolic naivete, sardonic grotesquerie and ultimate triumph, Ashkenazy hewed to a traditional stance, for the most part. Some of the extremely measured tempos barely skirted stasis and while the excitement was there when it needed to be, at times the sheer weirdness was skated over. In the funeral march, the conductor’s straight-faced take on the various episodes seemed a bit undercharacterized, most notably the “Jewish wedding music,” as Leonard Bernstein called it.

 More crucially, there seemed to be something of a disconnect between the Russian conductor and the New World musicians, whether lack of rapport or difficulty following his jerky, unorthodox movements and cues.

 Whatever the reason, this was a garrulous and roughly played account of the score, one that at times descended to pure sloppiness far below New World standards: blown woodwind solos, poor tuning, unblended textures, and an overall lack of polish and refinement.

Most conspicuously, the continuing lapses in the horn section have become chronic, to the extent that when the eight horns rose for the spectacular closing bars, at least a couple should have remained seated. Not a great night for the New World Symphony . . .  or for Mahler.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Bell shines brightly, Mahler a mess with New World Symphony”

  1. Posted Jan 25, 2009 at 6:03 pm by Arthur A. Anderman

    your review to the contrary, the 2100 persons at the performance did not agree with your comments. Each seletion had standing ovations and many, many curtain calls. People commented what a wonderful musical experience they enjoyed as they left the concert hall.

  2. Posted Jan 26, 2009 at 9:23 am by Dave R.

    Yeah. These must’ve been the same 2100 people who gave undeserved standing ovations to the Cleveland for Mahler 1 and Beethoven 9, too.

  3. Posted Jan 26, 2009 at 2:53 pm by hubert h.

    Johnson was right about the horns. In fact, I was ALSO at the dress rehearsal, sitting right behind them(10 feet away), facing the conductor. They also messed up then and the conductor said nothing. Three of the horn players were add-ons from New York, but I don’t know who messed up.

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Sun Jan 25, 2009
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