New World Symphony opens season in stellar style with a bittersweet note

By David Fleshler

Soloist Lynn Harrell performs Tchaikovsky with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Saturday night at the Lincoln Theatre. Photo: Craig Hall/New World Symphony

The New World Symphony’s opening-night concert Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach showed all the orchestra’s strengths. There was a big-name soloist, the cellist Lynn Harrell, in the not-underplayed Variations on a Rococo Theme by Tchaikovsky. There was a stellar performance of a monumental symphony, Beethoven’s Seventh.

And there was a weird contemporary work, with the composer appearing live on a video screen above the orchestra to explain the piece’s connection to the experience of a teenager listening to music on headphones at 1 a.m. in a room lit with psychedelic colors.

The program, which repeats today at the Lincoln Theatre and Monday at the Broward Center, began with the traditional season-opening ritual of American symphony orchestras. Artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas strode onto the stage, pointed at the snare drum, and as the drum roll began, everyone stood for The Star-Spangled Banner.

Next the head and shoulders of American composer Steven Mackey appeared on a screen above the orchestra, live from Princeton. As he explained to the audience, in an informal conversation with Tilson Thomas, he was inspired to write the three-movement orchestral work Eating Greens after buying a painting in New Orleans of a three-generation African-American family sitting down to eat, a vivid image in primary colors. Mackey, an electric guitar player, who got in a plug for his band’s upcoming concert in New York, composed the work in 1993 on a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

It’s a whimsical piece, a pastiche of 20th century American sounds, with lots of touches thrown in to show it doesn’t take itself too seriously – an out-of-tune violin, mock-solemn tones brought to a screeching halt, a telephone busy signal with the iconic, grating voice of the operator – “If you’d like to make a call, hang up and try again.” It seemed aimed as much at the mind as at the ear, and like many movie comedies, may be best the first time around.

At the age of 66, when many string players have begun to decline, Lynn Harrell retains a rock-solid bow arm and ample technique for the difficult Tchaikovsky work. He played the melodies in a light, unsentimental way, allowing their delicate beauty to come through. Although he didn’t nail every note in some of the fast passages, there was a charm in the obvious enjoyment he took in performing the work, for example, in his smile of pleasure — drawing a few laughs from the audience — when he successfully negotiated one of the work’s runs to the very highest notes of the cello. As an encore, he played two bourées by Bach.

Tilson Thomas conducted the Beethoven symphony without a score, and from the opening notes his mastery of the music and the orchestra was apparent. This was a performance of surging energy, with the orchestra clearly rehearsed to the hilt and responsive to Tilson Thomas’ commands for sudden changes in volume and tempo.  When climaxes came, as in the fortissimo statement of the march in the Allegretto, his control over dynamics arrived with that much more ferocity.

Tilson Thomas achieved tremendous transparency and balance in the orchestra, so even quiet sections, particularly in the first movement, felt weighted, harboring reserves of power. From the ascending scales in the opening slow section, strings had a great night, playing with precision, yet always with a spontaneity and energy. Winds achieved a rich tone, penetrating and clear but never dry. Brass was jubilant without being raucous.

As an encore, Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in a sparkling performance of Marche Miniature from Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 1.

Saturday night marked the last New World season that will open at the Lincoln Theatre, the former movie venue that has been the orchestra’s home since 1988. In January, the orchestra will move to the brand-new campus being finished next door, a high-tech wonderland of video screens, moveable stages and other gadgetry.

“It’s wonderful to share the last season opening in the our wonderful old home in the Lincoln Theatre where we’ve spent so many years,” Tilson Thomas said from the stage. “I have very bittersweet feelings.”

The New World Symphony repeats the program today at 2 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre and 8 p.m. Monday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Call 305-673-3331 or go to

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Sun Oct 17, 2010
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