Wigglesworth leads New World in rewarding 20th century program

By Lawrence Budmen

Mark Wigglesworth conducted the New World Symphony in music of Elgar and Britten Saturday night.

Mark Wigglesworth conducted the New World Symphony in music of Elgar and Britten Saturday night.

Three works from the first half of the 20th Century made up a challenging and difficult program for the New World Symphony and guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth on Saturday night at the New World Center in Miami Beach. An early vocal work by Benjamin Britten and a mature masterpiece by Elgar shared space with quasi-neoclassical Stravinsky, and the New World played all three wonderfully, taking its cues from an idiomatically attuned conductor to demonstrate that this ensemble can hold its own with the best.

Britten began writing Les Illuminations in England and completed the score in New York in 1939. The song cycle marks the beginning of the composer’s highly productive wartime sojourn in America. Set to stanzas of the nineteenth century poet Arthur Rimbaud, the work effectively captures the ecstatic spirit of the texts, which presage surrealism. The score veers from entrancing waltzes to French-tinged chansons and spare declamation. The mastery of vocal writing that would characterize the Britten operas to come is strongly evident in this entrancing creation. Originally conceived for solo soprano and string orchestra, Britten adapted the work for tenor Peter Pears, his life partner and muse, and the score is usually performed accordingly.

Scottish tenor Nicky Spence was a superb protagonist on Saturday. With a large, powerful instrument and vocal range that encompassed a low baritonal register and strength at the top, Spence ably painted the score’s shifting patterns. Singing in French with projected supertitles, he immediately commanded attention with his agile declamation of “I alone hold the key to this savage parade,” the leitmotiv of the 20-minute score. He soared in the beguiling melody of “Antique” and softly caressed the dream spun cantabile line of “Being Beauteous.” Spence conjured up the band of motley and exotic marchers in “Parade” and brought tenderness to the final reverie of “Départ.”

Guided by Wigglesworth, the New World strings exhibited vigorous, razor-sharp articulation in the initial “Fanfare.” The silky tonal compass of the violins formed a constant accompanying undercurrent, and Wigglesworth masterfully conveyed the cellos’ and double basses’ final fade to silence.

The German conductor Hans Richter called Sir Edward Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat Major “the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer.” Hyperbole aside, it was hard to disagree with Richter’s assessment judging by the fervor and meticulous attention to detail that Wigglesworth brought to the performance. This large-scale 50-minute work, premiered by Richter in 1908, finds the mature Elgar at the height of his powers. Wigglesworth conveyed the symphony’s long-spun arc in a reading that alternated tension, repose and boundless momentum in perfect proportion. The angst-ridden nostalgia of the third movement Adagio forms the symphony’s heart. Here Wigglesworth drew impassioned expressiveness and richness of tone from the fine string section, with solo interjections by horn and bassoon astutely balanced. He built the gradual crescendo to a glowing climax.

Wigglesworth paced the opening “nobilmente” theme of the first movement with stately reserve, but brought real intensity to the restless, churning Allegro section. Extreme contrasts of loud and soft dynamism were vividly pointed, and the big climaxes were given full sway. Despite the work’s thick scoring (which included five horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba), the recurrent glissando lines of the two harps were projected with clarity.

In the second movement Allegro molto, the four-member percussion section’s whip-crack articulation and the strings’ rapid leaps generated excitement. An animated rendition of the storm-tossed finale was capped by the triumphant return of the initial “nobilmente” melody, bathed in brass tones both mellow and vibrant. Wigglesworth drew superb playing from all sections of the large ensemble. The symphony, one of Elgar’s finest creations, seems to encompass a bygone world; Wigglesworth and the orchestra memorably conveyed its beauty and majesty.

The concert opened with Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), the program’s outlier. Mixing astringent thematic threads with austere brass chorales based on Russian orthodox chants, the nine-minute score bristles with urbane modernity far removed from the colorful orchestral panoply of Stravinsky’s early ballets. The 23-member wind ensemble exhibited incisive attack and finely shaded contrasts. New World conducting fellow Dean Whiteside led a relaxed traversal that captured the work’s acerbic outbursts and contrasting lyrical threads.

The New World Symphony repeats the program 2 p.m. Sunday at the New World Center in Miami Beach. nws.edu

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Sun Nov 12, 2017
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