Debussy fest finale closes New World season with broad portrait of the French composer

By David Fleshler

Michael Tilson Thomas led the New World Symphony in their season-closing Debussy concert Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre.

Despite his high rank in the history of music, Claude Debussy is still known to concertgoers for a relative handful of piano and orchestral works.

The New World Symphony’s “Reflections of Debussy” festival, which ended Saturday to close the orchestra’s season, presented a much broader portrait of the composer this past week. They included a discerning selection of famous and lesser-known works, visits from contemporary composers and generous background material provided in a special program booklet and lobby display.

Artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas was joined Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre by British composer Robin Holloway, who contributed a work of his own to the program as well as an orchestration of a Debussy two-piano composition. As much scholar as composer, Holloway is professor of music at Cambridge University and the author of many works on music, including the book Debussy and Wagner.

Holloway’s “Prelude and Scena” from the Clarissa Sequence for soprano and orchestra—itself extracted from his opera Clarissa—seemed more Wagnerian than Debussyian. Dramatic and almost old-fashioned in its declamatory style, the music, inspired by Samuel Richardson’s celebrated novel, portrays a young woman anguishing over her passion for one man and familial duty to marry another.

Robin Holloway

Robin Holloway

Holloway came on stage to introduce the work and talk about his early struggles to pursue his style, at a time when British music was locked in the grim orthodoxy of the twelve-tone system. “Of all kinds of music, the most accessible and appealing were actually forbidden,” he said.

Despite Holloway’s neo-Romantic label, this is not immediately accessible music with big soaring lines for the soloist. Puerto Rican soprano Rosa Betancourt sang the role with a penetrating but never harsh voice, negotiating Holloway’s sudden tonal leaps with agility, over tense dissonances in the strings. The work came to a tortured conclusion with strong, precise playing in brass and strings.

Holloway’s orchestration of Debussy’s two-piano work En blanc et noir gave the audience one of the composer’s grimmest works, composed in 1915 in response to the shelling, infantry charges and gas attacks taking place east of Paris.

Although war and nationalistic fervor often lead composers down the road of mindless bombast, this isn’t one of those works. It is a piece of mournful clarinet and oboe melodies, handled adroitly by the New World’s players. The dissonant string figures and abruptly cut off moments of joy end quietly, without a trace of triumphalism. Tilson Thomas effectively negotiated the rapidly shifting moods, and the orchestra handled the exposed solo passages with precision.

Only in the second half Saturday, after all the preceding week’s chamber works, orchestrated piano pieces and lesser known compositions, did the orchestra turn to two of Debussy’s best-known works.

New World conducting fellow Teddy Abrams led the orchestra in a taut, unsentimental  performance of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun that avoided the over-lushness that characterizes some interpretations. Flutist Brook Ferguson handled the vital solo part with a full tone and languid, almost improvisatory style that seemed, in the best sense, free of the printed page.

The final work on the program was Debussy’s tone poem La Mer, his symphonic depiction of the English Channel. Like Abrams, Tilson Thomas emphasized clarity over lushness. The orchestra sounded under-rehearsed in this piece, however, with a lack of precision in the violins and a few gaffes in winds and brass. It was still a yearning and satisfying performance, with the lower strings playinge with particularly biting drama and force in the opening of the third section, and the brass contributing a sonorous conclusion.

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Sun May 2, 2010
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