MTT, New World explore more offbeat Debussy byways

By David Fleshler

The New World Symphony’s Debussy Festival continued Friday night with one masterpiece and a few pieces from the fringes of the composer’s work and influence.

Led by artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra performed Debussy’s youthful Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, orchestrations of his Preludes for piano and finally his complex and atmospheric late work Jeux. Under conducting fellow Teddy Abrams, the orchestra performed a work by the contemporary British composer Colin Matthews that showed traces of Debussy’s influence. The festival concludes tonight with two works at the core of the composer’s popularity, La Mer and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

Some transcriptions often diminish piano works, costing them the crisp percussiveness of the original instrument without much compensation, yet Matthew’s orchestration of four of Debussy’s Preludes were surprisingly effective. Matthews reconceived the Preludes in strictly symphonic terms, with scoring that sounded like Debussy— harps, flutes, shimmering violins—and the results sounded like newly discovered Debussy tone poems, rather than thick arrangements of works for another instrument.

Jean-Frederic Neuberger

Jean-Frederic Neuburger

The highly regarded young French pianist Jean-Frédéric Neuburger was the soloist for Debussy’s rarely heard Fantasy. This three-movement  quasi-piano concerto is musically hard to place, sounding dreamier and more formless than many contemporary works, with hints of the mature Debussy’s harmonic vocabulary.

Neuburger played with an effortless, fluid touch. Although a concertante work, the composer doesn’t give the solo instrument a heroic role, and Neuburger integrated his playing smoothly into that of the orchestra.

Matthews’ 1989 work Hidden Variables, conducted by the New World’s conducting fellow, Teddy Abrams, with the composer in the audience, opened with raucous, percussive, almost chaotic blasts from the orchestra that sounded out of place in a Debussy festival. But the work transformed itself with hints of Minimalism and the use of orchestral colors that recalled Debussy.

Debussy’s last orchestral work, the ballet Jeux, was overshadowed the year of its premiere by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But it has gained in stature over the decades as one of the composer’s most forward-looking works.

The New World Symphony played this difficult work of constant rhythmic and harmonic shifts brilliantly. The orchestra’s performance was highly polished, creating a mosaic of tiny details in winds, brass, strings and percussion. Jeux can seem like it’s not going anywhere, but Tilson Thomas drew a performance that brought out the tensions, giving shape and a sense of line to the instrumental episodes.

The New World Symphony’s Debussy festival concludes with a concert tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach. Call 800-597-3331 or go to

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Sat May 1, 2010
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