New World players bring energy to Brahms chamber works

By David Fleshler

Johannes Brahms' Horn Trio and Clarinet Quintet were performed by New World Symphony members Sunday afternoon.

Johannes Brahms’ Horn Trio and Clarinet Quintet were performed by New World Symphony members Sunday afternoon.

As a composer with great regard for the past, Johannes Brahms held in high esteem the traditional forms of symphony and string quartet.

Yet it was when he abandoned the quartet in favor of less traditional groupings of instruments, adding the color and drama of piano, horn or clarinet, that his lyric and dramatic gifts bloomed.

Two of these works were performed Sunday, the Horn Trio and the Clarinet Quintet, by members of the New World Symphony at New World Center in Miami Beach.

The concert opened on a light note, the waltz Roses from the South by Johann Strauss Jr., in a 1921 arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg.

Brahms, despite the seriousness of his own works, would not have objected to the inclusion of a piece by his popular Vienna contemporary. A great admirer of Strauss, Brahms famously autographed Frau Strauss’s fan, not with a few bars of his own music as was the custom, but with the melody of Strauss’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube, with the words, “Unfortunately, not by Johannes Brahms.”

A similar respect for Strauss’ music came through in Schoenberg’s bumpy, oddly harmonized arrangement of the waltz for piano, string quartet and harmonium (an organ-like keyboard instrument). The New World Symphony performers gave a spirited performance that put Strauss’s melodies front and center, allowing the gentle fun that Schoenberg had with the music to come through without exaggeration in this playfully affectionate parody.

The well-known clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein had been scheduled to perform with New World members in Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet. But he was released from the engagement to go on a European tour. Replacing him was a New World alumnus who had forged his own successful career, Todd Levy, principal clarinet of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Santa Fe Opera.

Like the Mozart Clarinet Quintet from which it draws inspiration, this is a work that clarinetists know intimately, and Levy’s mastery and authority was apparent throughout. From the nostalgia-infused opening melody, Levy played with an easy smoothness that never seemed slick or practiced, just rooted in a deep knowledge of the work and its meaning. In the Adagio, his playing took on a improvisatory feel, but his free style of playing never caused it to lose shape, rather to gain energy.

The other performers, violinists Christen Greer and Andrea Daigle, violist Madeline Sharp and cellist Austin Fisher, created a glowing ensemble sound around Levy’s clarinet. This work is invariably described as “autumnal,” both for its tone and for the late stage in life in which Brahms composed it. But for all its dark moments and inward passages, it is not a lugubrious piece, and the performers brought ample energy to the turbulent passages—often with a wailing clarinet note at the top—that seem like cries of defiance against the inevitable.

Brahms composed the Horn Trio much earlier in his career, before he had produced any of his symphonies. As in the Clarinet Quintet, it is the non-string instrument that gives this work its unique color.

Handling the horn part was New World member Anthony Delivanis. The briskly played opening, which can be so evocative, with the stirring tones of the horn’s entrance, came off as somewhat rote and uninflected. But this turned out to not be representative of the rest of the performance.

Displaying great control over the tone and volume of his instrument, Delivanis gave color and harmonic support to violinist Foster Wang without overwhelming him. Pianist Aya Yamamoto easily handled her difficult, complex part, with occasional bursts of passionately intense playing that never overpowered her colleagues.

Delivanis provided an almost flawless performance on an instrument that trips up even its greatest players—playing with hunting-horn vigor and agility in the scherzo, dark and rich tones in the minor-key passages of that movement, and an exuberant brilliance in the work’s climactic ending.

Posted in Performances

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Mon Nov 16, 2015
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