New World opens Debussy Festival with austere chamber works

By David Fleshler

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

The New World Symphony opened a mini-Debussy festival Sunday with a concert of chamber works that showed a more austere side of the composer of La Mer and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn.

New World chamber concerts have produced some uneven performances this season. But at Sunday’s program, called “Debussy’s Petite Wonders,” at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach they produced performances that were authoritative, sensitive and technically exceptional.

The difference was apparent at the beginning, when New World cellist Sara Sitzer launched into the opening notes of Debussy’s Cello Sonata, accompanied by Joela Jones, pianist of the Cleveland Orchestra. Sitzer played assertively, hitting high notes fearlessly and exercising fine bow control to bring out the work’s variety of colors.

Jones joined the New World’s pianist Hyojin Ahn for Debussy’s well-known Petite Suite, originally written for piano four hands, although often performed in its orchestral arrangement. At the bass end, Jones was sometimes too assertive, giving the melodic first movement a percussive, grounded feeling. But the Menuet and Ballet were high-spirited and light textured, and the two pianists brought the work to a conclusion with gusto.

Perhaps the strongest performance of the day came at the end, when the violinist Tarn Travers and pianist Hyojin Ahn performed Debussy’s last work, his Violin Sonata. Ahn brought out the works varied textures, and Travers’ playing was brilliant—vigorous enough in the first movement to break bow hair (not the sort of event that happens often in Debussy), and in the second movement playing with a gorgeous tone that offered the composer’s familiar sensuous side.

The concert included two works by composers influenced by Debussy. Colin Matthews’ Time Stands Still was a slow-moving, atmospheric work for violin, horn and piano.

Also heard was Robin Holloway’s Summer Music for string quartet, oboe and clarinet. The composer was on hand, taking the stage to explain that the work expressed his distaste for summer (“Think mosquitoes, think wasps.”) The strings played acerbic, astringent figures while the oboe and clarinet functioned as lyric solo instruments.

Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp received a performance most notable for the rounded, technically effortless flute-playing of Katrina Walter.

The Reflections of Debussy festival continues through Saturday with a discussion, a film screening and orchestral performances of some of the composer’s best-known and least-known works. The next event is Wednesday, when the New World’s artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas discusses Debussy’s work with the composers Robin Holloway and Colin Matthews, followed by a screening of The Debussy Film, a feature about a director who wants to make a movie about the composer’s life.

The New World Symphony’s Reflections of Debussy festival continues through Saturday. Call 800-597-3331 or go to

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Mon Apr 26, 2010
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