De Leeuw, New World explore the dark side in contemporary program

By David Fleshler

Reinbert de Leeuw conducted the New World Symphony in a "Sounds of the Times" program Saturday night at New World Center.

Reinbert de Leeuw conducted the New World Symphony in a “Sounds of the Times” program Saturday night at New World Center.

 The New World Symphony’s contemporary music concerts are called Sounds of the Times, and judging by Saturday’s entry, the times are quite dark.

The concert at New World Center in Miami Beach featured two works by living composers, both with an ominous, nocturnal tone, ghostly instrumentation and moments of crashing violence. Conducting was a series podium regular, Dutch contemporary music specialist Reinbert de Leeuw, who led the orchestra in the U.S. premiere of his own work, Der nächtliche Wanderer (The Night Wanderer).

This sprawling, 45-minute work was inspired by a grim little poem by the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin (“Ah! The owl! How it screeches, how its fearful shriek fills the air. Slaughtering – ha! you crave butchered carrion…”). There was a touch of horror movie score to the music, not only in its unearthly orchestration but in its strong sense of narrative, with passages of foreboding leading to episodes of action and, presumably, violence.

The composer establishes the mood at the outset in a startlingly effective and chilling manner, with the recorded sound of a distant dog barking. A solo viola joins in, with spare notes coming from other instruments.

He creates a sense of loneliness and distance by stationing a small orchestra off stage and trumpet players in the balconies. Sounds, such as a procession of soft chords in woodwinds, arrive as if from far away. An off-stage accordion appears like a phantom. And then come episodes in which the tension is discharged, with screaming string playing and brutal percussion blows with wood blocks and a hammer.

There was a striking solo by concertmaster Michael McCarthy in which he made a lengthy and dizzying ascent to the very top of his instrument’s range, over a grumbling accompaniment in the orchestra. And for sheer shock, it would be hard to beat the creepy moment late in the work when a rasping and sinister recorded voice suddenly breaks in to recite the German words of the poem, over a few notes in the piano.

Although the piece sagged in the middle and might benefit from a few cuts, the work was distinct from many contemporary works, in that it wasn’t all atmosphere and no drama. Things happened. The listener felt like a story was being told, even if the details weren’t obvious.

The concert opened with a violin concerto by the renowned Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Entitled Graal Théâtre (Grail Theater), the concerto was inspired partly by poems about the Chivalric search for the Holy Grail.

Although for this work, Saariaho eschewed the electronics that she often employs, she still drew unusual and spacey sounds from the chamber-sized orchestra. For all the modernity of its musical language, however, there’s a hint of the 19th century in the concerto’s use of the violin as heroic protagonist in what turned out to be an absorbing musical drama.

Joseph Puglia

Joseph Puglia

The solo violin, played by the American-born contemporary music specialist Joseph Puglia, goes on a journey across a bleak and menacing orchestral landscape. With an amazing economy of forces, Saarriaho creates a darkly luminous atmosphere, often using just a few notes of harp, xylophone, wind instruments or timpani.

Puglia plunged with gusto into the demanding, complex solo part. He played in the rough, aggressive manner that much of the music demanded. Yet the soloist also brought a ghostly tone to eerie procession of high notes. Puglia achieved a huge tone as his bow swept across the strings in rapid arpeggios, drawing enough power to stand up to the massed forces of the orchestra.

The concerto was almost non-stop turbulence, with the orchestral tone turning more dire and threatening in the second and final movement. But at the very end, it achieves a sort of peace, as Puglia played glassy high notes and arpeggios and fades out.

Under de Leeuw’s leadership, the orchestra provided a finely balanced accompaniment, with a jewel-like glow in evocative woodwind passages and controlled aggression in moments that challenged the supremacy of the violin.

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Sun Apr 16, 2017
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