Oundjian, New World team up for a trio of contrasted 1930s masterworks

By Lawrence Budmen

Peter Oundjian led the New World Symphony in music of Barber, Rachmaninoff and Vaughan Williams Saturday night at New World Center. Photo: Sian Richards

The New World Symphony presented a fascinating juxtaposition of three scores written in the 1930’s on Saturday night at the New World Center. In their own individual manner, each of the composers rejected the atonal dogma of the Second Viennese School in favor of traditional melodic and harmonic structures. A dynamic performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Valentina Lisitsa was bookended by two symphonies created by American and British composers. Making a welcome return to the New World podium, Peter Oundjian drew vital, musically alert performances from the ensemble, providing splendid advocacy for the divergent creative voices.

A former Miami resident, Lisitsa maintains an international concert schedule, records for a major label and has gained a wide following through YouTube, where she has garnered over thirty million viewers. While Rachmaninoff’s set of variations on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 may be an overplayed warhorse, Lisitsa’s traversal was anything but hackneyed. From the deft lightness of the piano’s initial statement of the Paganini theme, this performance abounded in freshly conceived, personal touches. A veritable dynamo at the keyboard, Lisitsa offered a roller-coaster ride of extremes in tempo and volume.

For all the accuracy and brilliance of her playing in the fast sections, Lisitsa’s weighted chording of the Dies irae motif and the romantic sweep of the 18th variation projected a strong musical personality. The darkness of the 17th variation with solo trumpet shadowing the piano’s thematic fragments and a whirlwind coda  refreshingly threw pianistic  convention to the wind. Oundjian’s brisk, rhythmically exact accompaniment matched Lisitsa’s idiosyncratic approach. After prolonged applause and cheers, Lisitsa  offered a lithe reading of Liszt’s La Campanella, drawing wonderful coloration and a wide dynamic range from the often dull-sounding house Yamaha.

Conceived during an Italian sojourn in 1936, Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 in G Major seems to have fallen off the radar in recent decades. That is unfortunate because this compact, one-movement score conveys a more edgy, dramatically intense side of Barber than many of his more familiar works. Composed before such famous scores as the Adagio for String or Essays for Orchestra, the symphony’s four connected sections are based on two themes.

Oundjian had the full measure of the score, bringing power and weight to the severe opening and skittering energy to the Scherzo section, played with polished effervesce  by the strings. Joseph Peters’ evocative oboe solo over harp glissandos in Barber’s lyrical reinvention of a pensive motif brought a moment of calm before the stormy finale. Oundjian maintained driving momentum and motoric energy through to  the final exciting crescendo. Well rehearsed and superbly played, this was a worthy revival of a major American symphony.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ angry, fiercely dissonant Symphony No. 4 in F minor belies the English composer’s reputation for gentle, melodic pastoral scores. The bleak 1934 work is a  relentless study in tension. Even expansive melodies never really flow, the dark undercurrent sweeping all before it. Despite its rhythmic complexity and dark angularity, the symphony is one of Vaughan Williams’ finest works.

Under Oundjian’s fiery direction, the score seemed half as long as its thirty five minute time span. Commanding a leaner sonority from the ensemble, Oundjian effectively conveyed the shock of the crashing opening chords, acerbic intensity of the Scherzo and  grim thrust of the  martial themes in the finale. The seamless interplay of the strings and winds in the Andante offered a brief, quiet interlude in a full throttle reading of a twentieth-century masterpiece.

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

Valentina Lisitsa

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Oundjian, New World team up for a trio of contrasted 1930s masterworks”

  1. Posted Mar 19, 2013 at 8:29 am by Mario

    Thank you for this review. Was there and agree that Lisitsa was phenomenal and very down to earth. Great interpretation of Rachmaninoff. I did feel however, that the Vaughan Williams was too much after all the drama of the preceding two pieces. The program needed some breathing room. All three pieces, especially the Barber and Williams were challenging and to be placed on the same program a little redundant. After the final note on the Symphony #4 the audience was a bit lost. How can you clap after that tumultuous piece?

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