Contrasted Lindberg and Mackey works make for bracing New World program

By Lawrence Budmen

Jeffrey Milarsky  conducted the New World Symphony's "Sounds of the Times" program Saturday night.

Jeffrey Milarsky conducted the New World Symphony’s “Sounds of the Times” program Saturday night.

When contemporary music specialist Jeffrey Milarsky takes the podium at the New World Symphony’s Sounds of the Times series, significant new music is always on the agenda.

Previous Milarsky visits have yielded John Luther Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean and Michael Gordon’s luminous multimedia extravaganza Gotham among other worthy works. Milarsky returned to New World Center on Saturday night with two very different scores by Finland’s Magnus Lindberg and the American Steven Mackey.

Lindberg belongs to the high modernist school of European composers. Unlike many avant gardists, however, his scores flow with wit, intellect and creative imagination that hold the attention. Such renowned conductors as Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Alan Gilbert are among Lindberg’s leading advocates.

His chamber orchestral work Joy is the third part of a larger triptych written between 1988 and 1990. The thirty-minute score is a trip through spectral effects and fiercely contrasted timbres that constantly entrance the ear.

Short motivic invention abounds in this busy score in which many events overlap through Lindberg’s layered writing. The piano is treated almost as a solo instrument. Right from the start, piano fragments are set against a mallet percussive onslaught. Chimes, marimba and xylophone often mix with brasses to create a very bright sound. There are brief taped interludes, surprisingly quiet, of the destruction of a grand piano. Despite the scoring for just twenty-three players, the climaxes are massive in volume and force. Skittering string lines at times seem totally unrelated to the surrounding wind and brass chords. Lindberg’s instrumental writing tests the players’ skill to the maximum, none more so than the galloping figures for clarinets than span the instruments’ entire range. The work’s ending is sudden and unexpectedly quiet. Lindberg manages to make all of the divergent elements work and constantly hold the listener’s attention.

Milarsky is a master of highly complex modern scores. He expertly kept the ensemble on top of the constant changes of meter and achieved pinpoint dynamic contrasts. Special kudos to Dean Zhang who handled the gnarly keyboard writing brilliantly, doubling on celesta as well as piano. The ensemble played this difficult work with a mixture of enthusiasm, total instrumental command and idiomatic flair.

Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool was a joint commission of the New World Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, DC) and Australia’s Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Saturday’s performance marked the work’s East Coast premiere.

The title refers to the goddess of memory and myth in Greek mythology. In pre-performance remarks, Mackey described the 38-minute, five- movement work as “somewhere between a symphony and a concerto for orchestra.” The work is scored for full orchestra and exploits the colors of the instrumental choirs to the utmost.

Mackey is a former rock guitarist and his early orchestral works in the 1990’s uneasily attempted to fuse his pop music background with classical genres. (Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony recorded an album of those scores.)

Mnemosyne’s Pool is considerably more sophisticated. While Mackey sometimes lays on the barrages of brass volleys with too heavy a hand, the score is immensely likable. The ghost of Copland hovers somewhere in the background but not in a derivative manner.

The initial “Variations” immediately grips the attention with a soundscape of brass and chimes. Episodes for plucked violins and chirpy winds morph into full orchestral thematic strands. Mackey throws out a grab bag of melodic material in the second movement “Déja vu.” A folksy subject for two clarinets is particularly catchy. “Fleeting” serves as a bubbly scherzo with the entire orchestra in full flashy regalia – sort of a 21st century Roman Carnival Overture.

The fourth movement “In Memoriam A.H.S.” follows without pause. Hard percussion clashes introduce two cellos playing a grave, elegiac melody. This beautiful moment is all the more remarkable in the midst of the orchestral pyrotechnics that have preceded it. Eventually the theme becomes a weighted brass chorale.

The finale “Echoes” begins in a sentimental fashion but quickly turns pointed and quirky. A long, rapid section for violins is balletic and vigorous in the mode of Appalachian Spring which the New World played just last week. The coda brings a sonic wallop only to end with soft string chords.

The prominent harp part was expertly handled by Chloe Tula. She adeptly blended the instrument’s timbres with Mackey’s brass and mallet combinations. Milarsky led an often eloquent reading with the full orchestra in top form. Mackey was awarded repeated curtain calls by the enthusiastic audience.

The New World Symphony’s Sounds of the Times series continues 7:30 p.m. February 3 at the New World Center in Miami Beach with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting a program of New Work.

On March 31 7:30 p.m. John Adams conducts his Tromba lantana, David Lang’s Mountain, Ingram Marshall’s Flow, Samuel Adams’ many words of love and Timo Andres’ The Blind Banister with pianists Andres and Jonathan Biss as soloists.; 305-673-3331.

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Sun Dec 10, 2017
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