Festival Miami opens with a homegrown feast, “Made in America”

By Lawrence Budmen

Thomas Sleeper opened Festival Miami with a program of American music Friday night at Gusman Concert Hall.

Festival Miami opened with “Made in America,” a celebration of the diversity of American symphonic music. The program, which took place Friday night at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall, potently demonstrated the increasingly high caliber of students currently studying at the Frost School of Music and the commanding orchestral leadership of Thomas Sleeper.

Like Charles Ives, Wallingford Riegger and Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles was an iconoclast who cared little about trendy musical fashion or audience gratification. (Ruggles was a member of the UM music faculty between 1938 and 1943.) An audacious revival of his tone poem Sun-Treader really perked up the ears.

Ruggles’ craggy, bristling score contrasts huge blocks of sound with episodic flurries of exquisite wind and harp interjections. Writing in his own version of atonality vastly different from the dogma of the Second Viennese School, Ruggles creates a powerful cornucopia of instrumental timbres and sonorities. Drawing strong playing from all sections of the ensemble, Sleeper summoned fierce bursts of orchestral firepower and underlined the score’s moments of icy beauty. Perhaps he can revive Ruggles’ even more ambitious Men and Mountains on a future program.

Paul Creston’s music was once regularly programmed by major orchestras but has been unjustly neglected for decades. While his voice is tonal and conservative, Creston’s scores are hardly derivative. Indeed his music brims with a distinctively American sensibility and the Concerto for Alto Saxophone is an excellent sample of his superbly calibrated, melodically rich writing.

The concerto is a challenging tour de force for the instrument and Frost faculty member Dale Underwood was nothing short of sensational in the solo role. Underwood’s creamy tone and agility at top speed rode the crest of the first movement’s jazz-inflected ripples. The long blues-tinged cadenza in the second movement displayed his mastery of the instrument’s extremes and he captured the ironic tone of the finale’s principal Prokofiev-like theme. A beautiful cello solo at the moody outset of the second movement and whipcrack brass fanfares in the finale highlighted the incisive orchestral contribution.

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto has become a concert staple. Michael Ludwig, former concertmaster of the Buffalo Philharmonic,  displayed an idiomatic sensibility for Barber’s brand of American lyricism. While his medium-sized tone is not particularly rich, Ludwig  dashed off the finale’s rapid-fire writing in the violin’s upper register with fire and precision. Sleeper was an attentive accompanist, the prominent clarinet and oboe solos sonorously rendered.

Over one hundred years after its creation, Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question continues to surprise and disturb listeners with its nocturnal string triads interrupted by a distant trumpet seemingly propounding a question, answered by dissonant winds. Placing the trumpet just outside the back of the hall and the four winds in front of the orchestra on the audience level, Sleeper led a subtle, expertly judged reading.

The world premiere of Three Glorious Days by Matthew Evan Taylor displayed a fine ear for timbral sonorities, the clusters of brass, bells and percussion ingeniously crafted. Taylor is a promising new creative voice.

The concert opened with a sprightly performance of Bernstein’s Candide Overture, the luster and depth of string tone particularly distinguished.

Festival Miami continues with Pulse Chamber Music playing works by Charles Norman Mason, Dorothy Hindman, Alexander Artunian, Bright Sheng, René Touzet, Derek Bermel, Victoria Bond and Lecuona 8 p.m. Wednesday at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables. festivalmiami.com; 305-284-4940.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Festival Miami opens with a homegrown feast, “Made in America””

  1. Posted Oct 13, 2014 at 8:51 pm by Lewis Jones

    The cello solo on the Creston Concerto was performed by Joy Adams!

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