From humpback whales to Broadway swagger, New World closes chamber season with genuine American diversity

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Anyone looking for a common musical thread in the five American works served up by the New World Symphony in its final chamber program of the season will likely search in vain. Perhaps the unifying theme in these works is their very quirkiness and the fact that these American composers draw on such a vast range of influences and elements.

 Sunday afternoon’s generous program led off with an unbilled guest appearance by artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas, wearing two hats as composer and conductor in the performance of his Street Song.

 Originally written for brass quintet, the work remains one of Tilson Thomas’s freshest and most attractive efforts, with an indelible five-note theme, reprised at the coda, that stays in the memory. As the composer remarked, the work calls on a dizzying gumbo of influences from Balinese gamelans to Renaissance polyphony to Chuck Berry.

Sunday’s concert performed the quintet in MTT’s expansion to a 12-player symphonic brass arrangement, which proved much less successful.  Overscored and overloud, this retooling sacrifices much of the original’s intimacy and charm with far too much volume and cacophony, well played though it was by the New World brass.

 Gamelan influences play an even more prominent role in music of Lou Harrison, who often drew on exotic scoring and Balinese instruments.  Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra is less Balinese than traditional romantic concerto meets John Cage, as the violinist’s rhapsodic line collided with five percussionists manning an array of “found” instruments.

Yet rather than chaotic, there’s a sense of scale and proportion in this music. Harrison ensures the soloist is never swamped—tension coming from the tonal ambiguity of the violin line-and the tuned and untuned percussion add bracing and piquant textures to the solo passages. Conductor Michael Linville ensured clear balances and sharp rhythmic momentum, and violinist Emilia Mettenbrink proved a sensitive and dynamic violin soloist.

 Charles Ives’ brief Largo for violin, clarinet and piano made its stately melancholy effect, but music of George Crumb and Leonard Bernstein provided the afternoon’s highlights.

 Crumb’s Voice of the Whale is characteristic in its unorthodox approach to instrumentation and creative presentation. Scored for amplified flute, cello and piano, the three musicians perform in semi-darkness wearing half-masks.

 The music is typical in the composer’s thoughtful re-imagining of the instruments’ resources: the flutist is called upon to play and sing at the same time, the cellist uses wayward harmonics and the pianist is required to pluck and strum the instrument’s strings.

 The music is almost subliminal in its sense of timeless nature evocation, and the players were successful in producing an array of unearthly sonic effects including uncanny whale-like cries.  All credit to flutist Clint Foreman, cellist Jordan Allen and pianist Hyojin Ahn for this extraordinarily subtle and atmospheric performance.

 The afternoon ended with Leonard Bernstein and a work as brassy and boisterous as the Crumb was subtle and elliptical.

 The New World’s young conducting fellow Edward Abrams has done some terrific work this season but the white-hot rendition he led of Lenny’s jazzed-up Prelude, Fugue and Riffs was one of the most exciting things heard on the Lincoln Theatre stage all season. The saxophone quintet displayed  enviable blending and unison in the fugue and the closing Riffs section rocked the house, with brass, percussion and sensational clarinet playing—the amazing Louis DeMartino again—-that threw off Lenny’s high-stepping 1950s Broadway swagger with volcanic force and velocity.

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Tue Apr 28, 2009
at 5:45 pm
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