Tetzlaff brings fierce intensity to Ligeti with MTT, New World Symphony

By David Fleshler

Christian Tetzlaff performed Gyorgy LIgeti's Violin Concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Saturday night in Miami Beach.

Christian Tetzlaff performed György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Saturday night in Miami Beach.

“Not only do you play my concerto PERFECTLY but you talk about it with so much understanding and compassion.”

So wrote the late Hungarian composer György Ligeti to the violinist Christian Tetzlaff, in the sort of note every musician would love to receive.

Tetzlaff, who performed Saturday night in Miami Beach with the New World Symphony, has made a specialty of Ligeti’s spectacular, challenging Violin Concerto, performing it with the Boston Symphony, San Francisco Symphony and many others (including New World over a decade ago).

For all its modernistic harmonic vocabulary, the work has its old-fashioned elements, from the Passacaglia to the traditional concerto’s celebration of the solo instrument. No less than the concertos of Mendelssohn and Bruch, Ligeti’s work shows a deep understanding of the violin’s capabilities, although it takes it into territory they wouldn’t have imagined.

With Michael Tilson Thomas conducting, Tetzlaff gave a fiercely committed performance, in a work that stretches from wispy single notes to fortissimo chords that show the small instrument’s surprising ability to fill a hall with sound.

The work opens with arpeggios that Tetzlaff played at the very limit of audibility, forcing the audience to listen intently. The intensity ramped up, with Tetzlaff hitting octaves with gritty force. He engaged in a duet with the marimba marked by complex rhythms, as the music grew gradually more frantic.

In the second movement, he played a melody on the instrument’s lower strings, bowing with a gentleness that couldn’t have contrasted more with the wild music that preceded it. At one point, four wind players played ancient ocarinas, creating a ghostly effect against plucked chords on the solo violin. The violin part intensified, with Tetzlaff playing majestic chords—sounding like an entire wind section himself—against tones in the orchestra. The movement ended effectively with a grave flute solo over long-held violin notes.

The most striking movement was the Passacaglia. Eerie wind chords open the movement, and the violin joined in with glassy high tones. In this vast aural space, the wind chords grew in complexity and volume, and the dreamy mood gave way to one of menacing clipped rhythms. As the wind chords continued, in the repeated manner of a passacaglia, Tetzlaff’s playing grew in intensity, with searing single notes and blasts of three-note chords.

Much of the success for this performance came from the orchestra under Tilson Thomas, which gave a transparent, richly colored account of the dense harmonies, spectral chords and lonely melodies.

For the opening of the concert, Tetzlaff took the concertmaster’s position for Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, performed without a conductor.

Despite a fast tempo for the opening movement, the performance was well shaped and coherent even without a conductor. Different sections seized attention as the main action came their way, with thundering cellos, violas coming off as unusually prominent when they took up the melodies and an intense ascent of violins.

Bach’s written Adagio consisted of only two chords, and here Tetzlaff played a florid few minutes of what was presumably his own music, with a spare accompaniment. It didn’t sound much like Bach but was not jarringly unlike him either. They followed with a jubilant, high-spirited Allegro.

The second half of the concert was all Czech. Dean Whiteside, New World’s conducting fellow, led a performance of Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride. The orchestra’s strings did outstanding work in the rapid, busy fugal figures at the opening, playing with wonderful clarity and phrasing. The bumpy rhythms and the big tune came off with grand orchestral heft, but with fleet, clear textures.

Tilson Thomas returned to the podium to lead a monumental performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8.

From the opening cello melody, with its polished tone and natural phrasing, this was a performance that felt human, unhurried and full of Central European charm. The natural pace of the melodies made all the more striking the contrast with the movement’s more decisive, forceful passages, such the blaring brass melody as strings play an intense, frantic accompaniment.The Adagio came off as unusually dramatic, as Tilson Thomas drew out the contrast between the delicate wind passages that alternate with crashing chords in the full orchestra.

Dvořák would appear on many listeners’ lists of the greatest composers of melodies, along with Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and few others. Among his most memorable is the theme of the symphony’s Allegretto grazioso. Yet, although the tone was glossy and the playing assured, the performance by New World was a bit lacking in grazioso, the melody coming off as heavy and lacking a dance-like grace.

In their energetic account of the last movement, the musicians gave full scope to the range of emotions, from inward to extroverted. Horns were especially notable with their raucous blasts in the main theme. When the theme comes back softly toward the end, strings and winds played in a manner that was warm and nostalgic.

When Tilson Thomas singled out musicians or sections for individual bows, he rightly pointed first to principal flute Johanna Gruskin. Her graceful and sweet-toned playing was as impressive as her bravura handling of the finale’s virtuosic solo, both contributing much to the performance’s success.

The program will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday at New World Center in Miami Beach. nws.edu

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Sun Feb 24, 2019
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