MTT, New World bring crackling drama to Viennese program

By Lawrence Budmen


Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony Saturday night at New World Center.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony offered music of early 20th-century Vienna and a symphonic masterpiece from a century earlier on Saturday night. An unusually large crowd seemed to encompass every space of the lawn outside the New World Center while the auditorium was filled to capacity for this stimulating musical juxtaposition.

Works by Anton Webern and Alban Berg represented the Second Viennese School. Both composers were part of Arnold Schoenberg’s circle who eagerly embraced his pathbreaking 12-tone technique in their compositions. In other respects, however, they were very different.

Webern was a miniaturist. His Six Pieces for Orchestra last a mere thirteen minutes but the score is infused with a wealth of concentrated thematic cells and shifting timbres and textures. Except for the fierce climax of the fourth section, most of this score is very quiet. Despite the large orchestra Webern deployed (including four trumpets, four trombones, and tuba), the ensemble rarely plays at full force. Haunting and evocative, the music abounds in solos for flute, viola, clarinet, trumpet and bass drum. Tilson Thomas’ immaculate and supple detailing and instrumental balance drew out Webern’s delicate orchestral colors. The concluding fade-out of harp and celesta was exquisitely assayed.

By contrast Berg wrote large-scale symphonic, chamber and theater works that fused Schoenberg’s modernity with more traditional elements. Completed in 1922 and first staged in 1925, Berg’s Wozzeck is one of the greatest operas of the twentieth century. The tale of the tragic relationship between the soldier Wozzeck and his common-law wife Marie (who is the mother of his child), the opera is both riveting music theater and deeply disturbing. Tilson Thomas presented three excerpts that Berg arranged for concert performance prior to the staged premiere.

Asmik Grigorian

Asmik Grigorian

In the opening section, eerie string tones lead to offstage trumpet calls and a coarse march in Berg’s musical composite of atonality and Weimar cabaret. Making her American debut, Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian brought a darkly radiant lyric timbre to Marie’s lullaby to her son. Her vocal production was even and full throughout a vast range. In Marie’s bible reading scene, Grigorian’s pitched spoken lines and sudden outbursts in the high register were emotionally overpowering. She sang the child’s lines in the music of the concluding scene when Wozzeck has killed Marie for her adultery and accidentally drowned while disposing of her body in a lake.

Grigorian is an impressive singer with an operatic repertoire that encompasses Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Janacek. One looks forward to hearing more from this gifted artist. Tilson Thomas brought Viennese lushness and shrieking power to Berg’s dramatic writing with the orchestra playing in peak form.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major (The “Great”) was dubbed a “symphony of heavenly length” by Robert Schumann but there was nothing long-winded about Tilson Thomas’ performance. There seemed to be an initial false start with two horns playing a note prior to the initial statement of the opening theme but the performance proceeded without pause. Violin lines that are often unclear beneath the main melody in the winds came through with fine precision. In the ensuing Allegro, Tilson Thomas’ taut tempo was quite exhilarating. (In another era when Toscanini similarly paced the movement, it was considered too fast.) The dynamic range was broad and wonderfully transparent.

There was crisp articulation from the oboe and lower strings in the march-like theme of the second movement with Tilson Thomas giving shape to the movement’s long arc. Just the right touch of Viennese gemütlich gave color to the Scherzo. Timpani strokes were clearly audible over the corporate sonority. The Allegro vivace finale was thrilling in its sheer vigor. With Tilson Thomas at his interpretive best, the music of both Viennese schools was vividly brought to life.

The New World Symphony season continues with Alasdair Neale conducting “Concerto Night” featuring members of the orchestra playing Arild Plau’s Tuba Concerto, Bloch’s Schelomo, Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 and Sibelius’ Violin Concerto 7:30 p.m. February 18 and 2 p.m. February 19 at the New World Center in Miami Beach.; 305-673-3331.

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Sun Feb 5, 2017
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