Memorable Brahms and Mahler with MTT, Tetzlaff and New World Symphony

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Michael Tilson Thomas

Music of Brahms and Mahler is hardly terra incognito but when you have musicians of the caliber of Michael Tilson Thomas, Christian Tetzlaff and the New World Symphony, even familiar repertory can make for an extraordinary evening. Such was the case for the penultimate program of the New World Symphony’s 25th season Saturday night at New World Center.

Having offered up some luminous and spirited Bach on the same stage the previous evening, Tetzlaff returned for Brahms’ Violin Concerto on Saturday. Conductor, soloist and orchestra partnered in the same work nine years ago at Lincoln Theater. But fine as that performance was, Tetzlaff’s reading of this work has grown deeper, richer and more probing, as was shown by this fiery and commanding performance. Once can go a long time without hearing this warhorse played with this level of excitement and sense of discovery.

The German violinist’s technical arsenal is complete with even the most demanding passages thrown off with accuracy and spot-on intonation. Tetzlaff found an uncommon degree of fresh expression in the familiar Joachim cadenza, and the violinist’s restless physicality and intensity of attacks brought a crackling electricity to the bravura moments, with roiling support by Tilson Thomas and the orchestra.

Yet the soloist also brought out the nostalgia and Brahms’ distinctive vein of reflective melancholy. Launched with a lovely oboe solo by Kevin Pearl, Tetzlaff assayed the Adagio with a strikingly terraced dynamic range and an inward feeling that was touching for its intimacy of expression. The finale went with assured zigeneur spirit and notably robust orchestral playing, Tetzlaff sailing through the myriad challenges, and rounding it off with an exhilarating coda.

Following the enthusiastic ovations. Tetzlaff returned for an encore of the Andante from Bach’s solo Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor, rendered with refined tone and poised feeling.

There are several composers with whom Tilson Thomas does some of his finest work, including Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven and a wide swathe of American rep. But I don’t believe any conductor today can equal him in music of Mahler, as was shown by the rich-toned, eloquent performance of the Symphony No. 4 Saturday night.

The least tortured of the Austrian composer’s works, the Fourth even with its passing shadows, breathes an atmosphere of quirky humor and relaxed contentment in its journey toward a transcendent innocence. Tilson Thomas has been working his way through Mahler’s oeuvre with the New World in recent years, programming a Mahler symphony for his final season programs. Still even by superb past performances of the conductor in this rep, Saturday’s Mahler was a remarkable achievement.

Even from one who heard numerous memorable performances by the New World Symphony over nine years as a critic in Florida, the playing of the orchestra was truly outstanding Saturday, and worthy to stand with the top orchestras in the country. From the full-bodied strings to the clarion brass and wonderfully characterful woodwinds—the bumptious clarinets especially delightful—this was world-class Mahler by any standard.

The key to Tilson Thomas’s success in Mahler is that he allows the myriad elements of the composer’s world to project with full force and vigor without exaggeration, in all its humor, bleakness, grotesquerie, and humanity. The conductor adopted a fleet pace for the opening movement yet gave ample lyrical impact to the stringy second theme. Concertmaster Vivek Jayaraman’s tuned-up violin conveyed the acerbic edge of the satiric scherzo without overdoing the dark element.

The performance was at its height with the slow movement—spacious, suffused with deep feeling, rich ensemble tone and a natural eloquence. The massive orchestral outburst at the movement’s coda was overwhelming, if a bit congested in the venue’s close quarters.

The final movement is invariably the challenge in this work, with its setting for soprano of text from Das Knaben Wunderhorn of a child’s view of the gustatory joys of heaven.

Kiera Duffy’s light soprano has the right youthful timbre for this assignment but her initial entry sounded tentative and her tone rather wan, with uneven projection of the text. Still she illuminated the naive poetry sensitively and nicely conveyed the coda’s sense of elevated repose.

Even by his standard in Mahler, Tilson Thomas’s conducting was terrific, consistent drawing out a detail of scoring or coloring while keeping the hour-long work moving forward with fleet tempos that never sounded rushed.


That the New World Symphony has a glorious home is hardly news to its regular audiences for the past two seasons. But photographs, articles and critical accolades left one unprepared for what a truly magnificent venue New World Center is. The concert hall is as elegant, imposing and distinctive architecturally as it is superb acoustically, offering a degree of up close and personal intimacy that few, if any, concert halls in the world can match.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Memorable Brahms and Mahler with MTT, Tetzlaff and New World Symphony”

  1. Posted Apr 28, 2013 at 8:09 pm by Dave Rosenbaum

    Welcome back, Larry, if only for a night. Seeing you and Judy Drucker together made me nostalgic for the time when you were regularly reviewing music down here and Judy was bringing so much great music to South Florida.

    The New World and MTT doing great Mahler is, as you know, nothing new. Landing a ticket to one of the annual Mahler concerts is one of the best reasons to subscribe to the New World. The 4th might not have the intensity of the 6th and 9th, but this was another memorable performance, and this year’s NWS group was perhaps the best in recent memory (which is saying something because they’ve had a spectacular run).

  2. Posted Apr 29, 2013 at 8:23 am by Mario

    What a wonderful program, indeed! We were there in all the Mahler and NWS glory. Still, trying to figure out the last movement of the 4th symphony. It has an anti-climatic feeling, especially after the power of the 3rd movement. Can’t figure out what Mahler was thinking. Thank you for a season, full of great reviewing.

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Sun Apr 28, 2013
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