MTT leads New World Symphony in arresting Viennese program

By Lawrence Budmen

Rainer Honeck was the soloist in Berg’s Violin Concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Saturday night.

Even with a changed bill of fare, the New World Symphony’s concert on Saturday offered one of the most arresting programs of the season. Music from the Second Viennese School shared space with the romantic, impulsive spirit of the nineteenth century. Two first-chair members of the venerable Vienna Philharmonic joined an energized Michael Tilson Thomas and New World players in top form.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Theme and Variations is an Americanized variant of the composer’s seminal Variations for Orchestra (1928). Like its atonal predecessor, the 1943 score displays a spectrum of instrumental colors, the timbres of the instrumental choirs clashing in sharp contrast. The score betrays its  origins as a work for concert band, the string parts seemingly grafted onto the dense wind writing. Edgy and contrapuntal, this brass heavy score seemed tailormade for the high-definition acoustic of the New World Center.

Despite considerable ingenuity, the work is not Schoenberg’s most inspired creation. Still, it provided a splendid showcase for the ensemble’s stellar brass and wind contingents. Tilson Thomas’s taut direction brought definition and clarity to the score’s hard-edged brilliance.

Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto is a masterpiece of twelve-tone technique, an emotionally searing response to the death of Manon Gropius, daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler. From the quiet, ruminative opening violin solo over winds and harp to the final meditative resignation of the coda, Vienna concertmaster Rainer Honeck (brother of conductor Manfred Honeck) was an expressive soloist. Honeck’s tone was small and somewhat constricted, and at times overwhelmed by the lower brass.

But he tossed off the angular, rapid double stops at the opening of the second movement  with appropriately harsh sinew and captured the soaring pathos of the concerto’s elegiac conclusion. Tilson Thomas’s masterful conducting commanded intensity while giving full measure to the music’s lush, sensuous textures. Whether in angular, violent ensemble outbursts or the silken string tones of the score’s final pages, the orchestra was in superb form, playing with tonal sheen and incisive attacks.

Instead of the previously announced Schoenberg-Monn Cello Concerto, Tamas Varga joined New World players Meredith McCook, Alexandra Thompson and Kevin Kunkel in the Concert Waltzes for Four Cellos by 19th-century German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Charmingly aristocratic in the manner of Josef Lanner, this waltz suite is an enticing, candied bon-bon. Vargas’s honeyed tone and brisk articulation of the Paganini-like harmonics led a stylish performance by the well rehearsed players.

Schumann’s rousing, melodically felicitous, Symphony No. 1 (Spring) is the least often played of the composer’s large scale orchestral works. Tilson Thomas’ taut performance encompassed the ardent romantic glow of the Larghetto, agitated aura of the Scherzo and vivacious joy of the finale as spring breaks out in full bloom. Burnished string sound and pealing brass tones highlighted a splendidly assured orchestral performance.

 The New World Symphony repeats the program 2 p.m. Sunday at the New World Center in Miami Beach. 305-673-3331;

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Sun Jan 27, 2013
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