Brewer delivers memorable Wagner with MTT, New World Symphony

By David Fleshler

Christine Brewer performed Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder" with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Saturday night at the Arsht Center.

The popular image of the Wagnerian soprano is that of a physically imposing singer whose voice can rattle sternums in the back of the hall.

While the renowned American singer Christine Brewer certainly fits that profile, it was not through sheer volume that she conquered the audience Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami. Brewer, one of the world’s leading performers of Wagner and Strauss, was at her most impressive in the quiet, darkly sensuous passages of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, bringing to her performance with the New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas an effortlessly rich, nuanced and gorgeously flowing tone.

The five songs, composed to texts by Mathilde Wesendonck, with whom Wagner was infatuated, sometimes sound like outtakes from The Ring or Tristan und Isolde (and material from two of them found their way into Tristan). The turbulent song Stand Still! seemed made for Brewer, as her plush, pitch-perfect voice filled the hall with streams of melody. In the song’s grave final section, her softly sung notes floated over the audience and she built up a tremendous crescendo, holding the climactic note magnificently.

The melodies seemed to flow from her spontaneously, without a trace of the windup a lesser singer would need before hitting a high note. She gave a great performance of the shadowy music of In the Hothouse and brought a questioning, searching tone to Dreams, blending into the pulsing orchestral accompaniment for a performance that was a model of vocal allure and musical intelligence.

To end the first half with a performance like that risks giving the second half a sense of anti-climax. But Tilson Thomas and the New World gave a fine performance of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 that was completely worthy of following Brewer.

Conducting without a score, Tilson Thomas led the orchestra through the stately, dark, glossy opening over the solemn drumbeat of the timpani, prefacing a dramatic, unhurried first movement that gave the music lots of room to breathe without losing a sense of pace. In the second movement there were fleeting glitches in winds and brass, but the orchestra played with a luminous tone from which moments of drama, such as the sudden minor-key episode early in the movement, emerged naturally rather than abruptly.

In the last movement — the symphony’s longest and its center of gravity — Tilson Thomas took a brisk approach that risked shorting some of the movement’s grandeur. Horn and flute solos didn’t quite have the breadth and scale the music seems to call for. But compensating for this, Tilson Thomas brought a frantic sense of forward motion to the movement, particularly apparent in the rapid string passages, that gave the movement an unaccustomed drive and sense of propulsion, bringing the symphony to an energetic close.

The concert opened with a serviceable performance of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, marked by vigorous horn playing, some ensemble imprecision and a rote feel that failed to enter into the mischievous spirit of the work.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Brewer delivers memorable Wagner with MTT, New World Symphony”

  1. Posted Oct 31, 2011 at 12:17 pm by Dave R.

    Nice review of the Wagner songs. Brewer was wonderful, as was the orchestra with its lovely, unobtrusive accompaniment. MTT really respects singers.

    The Brahms was played nicely, but I question the wisdom of following a first half of Strauss and transcendent Wagner with a second half of Brahms. The differences in style are simply too jarring and require too much of a shift in mindset on the part of the listener. Going from Wagner’s songs to Brahms 1st is like driving along in a beautiful countryside, only to suddenly find yourself in the middle of a huge, grey, imposing city.

  2. Posted Oct 31, 2011 at 4:13 pm by Gary

    It is always interesting to hear other people’s views of the same concert. I found the experience to be quite different than the reviewer. In fact one of the high points that the reviewer failed to mention was that the oboe solo’s in the Brahms were positively breathtaking and the Eb clarinet execution in the Strauss was strikingly good. Certainly the audience was very happy with the performance. Though I would agree that some of the execution in the 2nd movement of the Brahms could have been better I completely disagree with the assessment on the Horn Solos in the 4th movement. The sound was huge, heroic and MTT seemed completely happy with it. If memory serves the horn received the first bow for the Brahms which in of itself is highly significant. Additionally the trombone/bassoon choral in the 4th movement was balanced to a level that inspiring awe. I have heard this piece live with 4 major orchestras and found this rendition be spectacular. Kudos to NSW and MTT. Many thanks to them for bringing real music performance to South Florida.

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Sun Oct 30, 2011
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