MTT, New World open season with memorable Brahms, mixed Mozart

By Lawrence Budmen

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony in music of Britten, Mozart and Brahms Saturday night in Miami Beach.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony in music of Britten, Mozart and Brahms Saturday night in Miami Beach.

When Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony are in top form, readings of even the most standard repertoire can reach exalted heights.

The performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor at the orchestral academy’s season opener on Saturday night at New World Center managed to exceed even some of the orchestra’s best offerings in recent seasons. That this was achieved with 43 new players joining the group’s ranks was all the more remarkable.

The program’s first half yielded more mixed rewards. Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a brilliant set of variations on a theme from Purcell’s incidental music to Abdelazer. For once it was refreshing to hear this work without narration and allow Britten’s dazzling invention to speak for itself. After a robust statement of the theme, Tilson Thomas shaped the winds’ variant with almost folk-like character. When the strings took their turn, in the New World Center’s vibrant acoustics, the sheer fullness of sonority almost sounded like a large orchestra in itself.

As the score turned to individual instruments, the two flutes and piccolo played with crisp agility and the oboes’ Lento section was appropriately plaintive. The violins’ polacca-infused variation was assayed with high precision and the harp’s solo display turned sweeping arpeggios and glissandos into elegant miniature thematic bursts.

While the percussion created a splendid racket in their moment in the spotlight, Tilson Thomas kept the underlying rhythmic figure in the strings clearly audible. The final fugue was taken at a brisk tempo with the entrance of the horns emerging like a ray of sunlight amid the busy counterpoint. A measured reprise of Purcell’s theme concluded a high-voltage curtain-raiser. Tilson Thomas had the players of each individual instrument stand to acknowledge the very enthusiastic audience response.

Less welcome was the accompanying visual presentation. Designs of each of the instruments, some only partial, were projected above the stage and on the sidewalls. While skillfully conceived and eye filling, it distracted from Britten’s music and the individual players’ efforts. As in the performance several seasons ago of John Adams’ Civil War cantata The Wound Dresser, these visuals detracted from the performance rather than enhancing it.

Gabriela Montero performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 14 Saturday night.

Gabriela Montero performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 Saturday night.

Gabriela Montero was the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat Major.

Tilson Thomas’s sturm und drang introduction set the mood for Montero’s well-articulated yet prettified traversal of the opening Allegro. This was powdered-wig Mozart, lacking sparkle and lightness. Montero’s own cadenza, conversely, brought an unidiomatic Beethoven-like power and weight.

The orchestra’s songful opening of the Andantino was undercut by Montero’s heavy-handed touch, which broke the lyrical spell. Her efforts were not aided by the limited tonal compass of the house Yamaha.  Tilson Thomas’s accompaniment brought some life to the finale, capturing the quirky wit of the principal theme. Montero kept up the pace and conveyed much of the music’s charm and contrapuntal twists. The coda was appropriately lithe and exuberant.

Montero has made a specialty of creating her own improvisations as encores. When she asked the audience to call out a melody, an audience member suggested a Latin dance tune and she launched into an extended Baroque-style reinvention, replete with Bachian counterpoint. This is a classical stunt, but there was more energy and pianistic flair in it than in most of the Mozart concerto.

Brahms’ symphony replaced the originally scheduled Symphony No. 6 by Anton Bruckner. Yet any disappointment was quickly dispelled.

The Fourth Symphony is autumnal Brahms and Tilson Thomas’s moderate pacing of the first movement was unhurried, allowing the melodic lines a natural flow. Instrumental strands emerged clearly and brass and woodwinds blended ideally, as a choir, without individual timbres. On the left side of the stage, eight basses anchored the deep well of tone from the lower strings that serves as a continuous undercurrent and string pizzicatos were clean and in unison. Brahms’ structure emerged with clarity and force.

The winds excelled in the lyricism tinged with sadness of the second movement. Cellos and violas stated the second motif with evocative tenderness and Tilson Thomas drew out the big climactic moments eloquently. The timpani’s lines, often obscured, came through emphatically.

Clear cut rhythms abounded in the Allegro giocoso, which really danced. In the final Passacaglia, the conductor engendered a sense of tension that kept momentum and terse energy running through the 33 variations on the theme from a Bach cantata. A silvery, technically secure solo flute stood out among superb and well disciplined playing from all sections.

Tilson Thomas added Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 as an encore, bringing just the right touch of paprika, with the strings nicely balancing gypsy fiddling and symphonic thrust.

The New World Symphony has an ambitious season ahead with several premieres and rarely heard repertoire. There is one remaining performance of this opening program Sunday afternoon and this memorable Brahms performance, under Tilson Thomas, is worth catching.

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this review stated that Gabriela Montero was a student at the University of Miami in the 1990s. Though she performed at UM’s Gusman Concert Hall and elsewhere in Miami in the 1990s, she was never a student at UM. SFCR regrets the error.]

The New World Symphony repeats the program 2 p.m. Sunday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.;  305-673-3331.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “MTT, New World open season with memorable Brahms, mixed Mozart”

  1. Posted Oct 21, 2018 at 10:48 pm by Gabriela Montero

    Mr. Budmen,

    I am afraid the information you present in your article is innacurate. I studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London in the 1990’s. I was never a student at the University of Miami.

    Best regards,

    Gabriela Montero

  2. Posted Oct 24, 2018 at 10:15 am by Gabriela Montero

    I patiently asked you to correct the wrongful information you continue to share in your reviews of my concerts, to no avail. I have now published the following comment on my social media.

    Gabriela Montero


    I would like to issue a formal correction to repeated misreporting by Lawrence Budmen in the South Florida Classical Review.

    Twice, now, Mr. Budmen has inexplicably included references in his reviews to my studying at the University of Miami in the 1990’s. On the most recent occasion, he even expresses a certain personal bewilderment that I do not mention Miami either in my biography, or – more oddly still – from the stage itself when verbally introducing my improvised encores.

    I have written to Mr. Budmen via the South Florida Classical Review and asked for a correction to be made. No correction has been forthcoming, nor have my messages been acknowledged. It seems that the comment section is regulated and censored.

    For the record, then, I NEVER studied at the University of Miami in the 1990’s, or at any other time. This is not a commentary in any way on the University of Miami, which I am sure is marvelous. It is simply a statement of fact.

    From 1990 – 1995 I studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, of which I am now a Fellow, with the excellent and inspirational Hamish Milne, a man I so wish had entered my life a decade sooner.

    From 1978 – 1988 (aged 8-18) I lived in Miami and studied privately, initially funded by the Venezuelan government of the day, with a teacher whose name I choose not to publish.

    I do not speak in any way for that teacher’s other students, but MY time with that teacher led me to give up the piano altogether by 18, such was the counter-productivity of the experience for me. Perhaps most egregiously, I was repeatedly told that improvisation – as practiced regularly by the great composers whose works drive our entire industry today – was nothing but a worthless gimmick, or, as Mr. Budmen calls it in his infinite wisdom, a “stunt”.

    The underlying question that remains, is why Mr. Budmen insists – twice – on making this connection to the community surrounding the University of Miami, while also insisting on consistently denigrating me as an artist.

    I will always respect the right of the critical community to freely express their own musical tastes, but when there appears to be an interpersonal connection to my past which, in turn, negatively impacts my professional reputation today, I am compelled to address it on ethical and professional grounds alone.

    After some research into Mr. Budmen’s affiliations, I have reached the reliable conclusion that gossip from my past in Miami is, indeed, surfacing via Mr. Budmen’s pen with a bias that borders on prejudice, even malice.

    Even though we live in the #MeToo era, it would achieve nothing to publicly revisit the source of that gossip, so, unless it continues to tarnish my reputation as an artist, I prefer to not elaborate any further at this time. It would be painful for me and they are traumatic episodes I have wanted to leave in the past.

    Suffice it to say, the overwhelmingly happy and joyful time I just spent this weekend in Miami with the exemplary New World Symphony and the inspirational Michael Tilson Thomas, along with the intense ovation of the audience at both concerts, leaves me with a personal uplift that bares no resemblance to my fading recollection of less happy times there decades ago.

    I would very much appreciate if Mr. Budmen would, then, henceforth desist from connecting me and my education to the University of Miami of the 90’s, thereby allowing me to enjoy the hugely positive experience of making music in Miami today, in 2018, without his now-predictable, post-concert evisceration.

    I can not insist that he demonstrate a more profound understanding of the art of improvisation in his writing. Nor can I insist that he avoid interpreting a standing ovation with vile condescension – “Clearly excited by sheer decibels, the audience gave her a standing ovation” – to suit his subjective narrative.

    But I can insist that he get his facts straight. And I do, hereby.

    G.M. 23/10/2018

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Sun Oct 21, 2018
at 12:25 pm