Oundjian, New World triumphant in Nielsen symphony

By Lawrence A. Johnson

A significant part of the Western classical canon  is based on musical conflict: A and B themes, fast and slow tempos, varied dynamics, timbres and keys.

Carl Nielsen, however, takes the concept of musical collision to an entirely different level. The Danish composer’s music depicts a bucolic pastoral world continually upended by disorder, danger and violence. Nielsen’s works are largely optimistic, yet the journey to major-key affirmation goes through a landscape of psychic dislocation, a sense of the earth shifting and that the center cannot hold.

The New World Symphony presented Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 Friday night at the Lincoln Theatre, in a program led by Peter Oundjian.  Nielsen’s Fifth is unorthodox in structure, split into two large movements, divided into smaller sections. The music is replete with Nielsen’s characteristic elements, high-flying string lines, rustic, folk-like wind writing and two fugues.

The first section offers the most striking music, notably when malign militaristic percussion breaks in on the amiable proceedings, and one can clearly sense storm clouds on the European horizon in this work, written in the 1920s. The second section offers an indelible,  heart-warming theme—Nielsen’s most memorable inspiration—which an insistent snare drum attempts to throw off balance and destroy, playing ad libitum in a different time signature. The battle between opposing forces grows in volume and intensity, until the lyrical theme emerges victorious over the chaos, in one of the most extraordinary moments in the entire 20th-century symphonic literature.

Music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Oundjian made an unspectacular debut with the New World five years ago, but the Canadian conductor’s magnificent performance of Nielsen’s symphony was nothing short of a triumph.

Oundjian is clearly a Nielsen true believer and he drew a commanding, massively powerful reading from the orchestra. The titanic struggle of the first movement was ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level, and throughout Oundjian demonstrated a sure hand with the shifts and turns of this intensely challenging and idiosyncratic music.

The New World members responded with one of their finest performances of the season, with virtuosic string playing, majestic brass and characterful and eloquent winds, not least Louis DeMartino’s outstanding clarinet solos.

It’s surprising how infrequently music of Mozart is programmed locally with this weekend’s performances of the composer’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, the first Mozart heard on the orchestral subscription concerts this season.

Oundjian took a brisk, incisive approach to this dark, unsettled music without sacrificing refinement, as with the graceful Andante and vigorous Menuetto.  Woodwinds could have been better blended as a section and with the rest of the ensemble, as Oundjian, first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet for fourteen years, at times seemed more focused on the string playing. But this was on the whole, stylish and idiomatic Mozart putting across the drama as well as the elegance.

The concert led off with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, led by the New World’s conducting fellow Edward Abrams, who achieved the impossible by making Barber’s threnody appear freshly minted.

The performance moved from barely hushed rumination to passionate outpouring and spent solace, unfolding in a single seamless arc. Abrams drew refined, transparent playing from the New World strings in a moving, finely detailed performance of uncommon depth and natural eloquence. The 21-year-old conductor is a greatly gifted musician who appears to be on the verge of a major podium career.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. 305-673-3330; www.nws.edu.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Oundjian, New World triumphant in Nielsen symphony”

  1. Posted Mar 30, 2009 at 7:11 pm by Herb Fishler

    Mr. Johnson: My wife and I went to the NWS Sat. night as part of our subscription series. Your review was on point. We thoroughly enjoyed both symphonies. Sun. afternoon we attended a concert by the Lynn University Philharmonica Orchestra. The guest artist was young soprano, Nadine Sierra. At 20 years old, she was fabulous. We find ourselves going to Palm Beach more often as opposed to Broward & Dade. We live in Hollywood. In fact, we gave up our subscription to the FGO several years ago due to the poor casting and staging. That was replaced by the Palm Beach Opera and the 3-4 hours now swiftly pass as the performances are a much higher caliber. I just learned you are leaving for Chicago. Your reviews and comments will be sorely missed. Have a great future. Herb Fishler.

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