Lubman leads New World Symphony in audience-participation premiere and an American classic

By Lawrence Budmen

Bradley Lubman conducted the New World Symphony in music of John Adams and David Lang Saturday night. Photo: Peter Serling

Bradley Lubman conducted the New World Symphony in music of John Adams and David Lang Saturday night. Photo: Peter Serling

The New World Symphony’s annual Sounds of the Times concert on Art Basel weekend, featured the American premiere of a communal participation work by a major contemporary composer and a stunning performance of an American classic. Brad Lubman, a well traveled contemporary music specialist, was an enlivening presence on the podium.

In his program notes and commentary from the stage of Miami Beach’s New World Center Saturday night, David Lang said that his motivation in creating harmony and understanding (which the New World Symphony co-commissioned with several European ensembles) was to provide a few moments of unity in a world that is increasingly divided by identity politics, economics and nationalistic impulses.

To that end, he crowd-sourced a text by typing “We all want to . . . .” into an internet search and chose the first 33 answers that did not relate to divisive elements. The audience is asked to recite and, at times, sing the text. Lang derived the score’s title from the song “The Age of Aquarius” in the 1960’s musical Hair. The answers to Lang’s query that form the work’s text revolve around such commonalities as “to love,” “to be free,” and “to be liked, loved or needed.”

There is no doubting the sincerity of Lang’s intentions and he has cleverly integrated the audience participation, at times as whispered background, with the instrumental invention. At the end the orchestra stops playing and the audience recites the final phrases in unison to the conductor’s beat. The audience eagerly took up its role and Lubman expertly coordinated the project.

While minimalism rather than impressionism is closer to Lang’s compositional palette, the orchestral textures gleam with the sensuous colors of Ravel. The calm opening, spotlighting harp, keyboard and strings, sets a contemplative mood. Lang creates striking percussive sonorities in combinations of timpani, bass drum and chimes. An interlude for flute and strings flows in beautiful melodic paths.

Following the initial round of performances, Lang should seriously consider expanding the score into a standalone orchestral work. Lang’s music for this experiment in fusing orchestra and audience as one community is too good to be shelved after its novelty value wears off.

Just as Aaron Copland’s work became the voice of American classical composition in the 1930’s and 40’s, in many ways John Adams’ scores occupy a similar position today. Like Copland, Adams speaks in a voice that reflects the musical sounds and impulses of his time but is immediately accessible to his audience.

His Harmonielehre, written in 1985, has quickly become part of the standard symphonic repertoire. A symphony in everything but name, Harmonielehre  marks an important transitional phase in Adams’ output. After following the minimalist trends of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in his early compositions, Adams moved toward more varied and expansive paths that encompassed late symphonic  romanticism of the pre Schoenberg era. All of those influences resound in Harmonielehre.

In previous decades, New World ensembles have given excellent performances of Adams’ score under Michael Tilson Thomas and Alasdair Neale but those efforts were hampered by the problematical acoustics of the Lincoln Theater, the orchestral academy’s former home. The clarity and resonance of the New World Center are tailormade for Adams’ vast orchestral volleys with the score emerging as a total sensory experience.

Adams’ pounding opening chords were crisp and decisive. Lubman’s brisk tempo, clear beat and precise cuing made every instrumental strand clear. The unison figures of two harps, celesta and piano were audible over the full ensemble. In the opening movement, Lubman drew a huge sonority from the strings in thematic motifs that brought out Adams’ Mahlerian side. Brass harmonics tickled the ears and the final crashing whack packed a real musical wallop.

“The Amfortas Wound,” the second movement, is the soulful heart of the score. Smooth and unison cellos and double basses evoked darkness and despair. Lubman made the long spans of melody really sing. The dissonant interjections of four trumpets had strong impact and the growling strokes of three trombones and two tubas drove the music’s tragic cast home decisively. Final soft string chords seemed to emerge from afar.

The bright textures of the final section, signaled a change of mood. Short clipped wind figuration alternate with lush string themes in Adams’ masterful synthesis of propulsive energy and multi hued solo colors. Near the climax, the five horns sound a brief chorale which becomes the main thematic fragment of the busy coda. Drawing high-powered playing from the large instrumental complement, Lubman generated a genuine sense of excitement. The audience’s enthusiastic response demonstrated how Adams’ creation has become part of the American orchestral fabric.

The  New World Symphony’s next Sounds of the Times concert features Matthias Pinscher conducting his mar’eh for violin and orchestra with soloist Renaud Capucon and Ligeti’s San Francisco Polyphony and Neuwirth’s Mascot/Clocks Without Hands 7:30 p.m. February 16, 2019 at the New World Center in Miami Beach.; 305-673-3331.

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Sun Dec 9, 2018
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