Harold in Miami Beach: New World wraps “Viola Visions” with a new twist on Berlioz classic

By David Fleshler

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony in music of Berlioz and Feldman Saturday night. Photo: Rui Dias-Aidos

For the viola world, there was big news Saturday night in Miami Beach.

The New World Symphony gave the world premiere of an elaborate
revision of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, an almost-concerto for viola that has disappointed generations of violists with the lack of solo playing time in its last movement.

The revision by the American composer Steven Mackey appears unlikely to displace Berlioz’s version, but it certainly transformed the gentle, restrained viola part into a vehicle for aggressive virtuosity.

The performance took place at New World Center in the concludin program of “Viola Visions”— a weeklong festival with a series of concerts, master classes and other events devoted to the unique sound and capabilities of the string section’s mezzo-soprano.

Long treated as something of an orchestral fall guy, doomed to the necessary but unglamorous task of producing interior harmonies, the viola has inspired an entire genre of low humor known as the Viola Joke (“How do you keep your violin from getting stolen? Put it in a viola case.” “What’s the range of a viola? As far as you can kick it.”)

That attitude changed in the 20th century with the rise of virtuosi such as Lionel Tertis and William Primrose, whose prowess attracted the notice of leading composers, soon giving the instrument a more-than-respectable concert repertoire. (Although googling  “best violist today” yields this response: “Did you mean: ‘best violinist today?'”)

The genesis of Harold in Italy sounds like the material for a viola joke of its own. The great 19th-century violinist Niccolò Paganini asked Berlioz to write a work with which he could show off his Stradivarius viola. But Berlioz’s 1834 composition failed to provide the brilliant solo part Paganini expected, so he never performed it.

The revision performed Saturday might have satisfied Paganini, since Mackey added a series of elaborate viola cadenzas to the last movement that required technique at a much higher level than the rest of the work.

Taking the solo part was Tabea Zimmermann, one of the world’s leading viola soloists, who gave a flawless, committed and sonorous performance.  She nailed all the rapid passages composed by Mackey, in which she was required to play two or three notes at once, with perfect intonation, a huge sound and dramatic sweep.

Mackey is an electric guitar player whose compositions are strongly influenced by rock music. It was possible to hear in the hard-grinding, high-flying viola cadenzas an echo of rock’s wild, improvisational guitar solos.

It may have been his intention to contrast the improvisational viola cadenzas with the straightforward melodic and dramatic power of Berlioz’s music. And it’s difficult, of course, for a revision of a well-known classic to not sound jarring on first hearing.

Yet the aggressive viola cadenzas still felt bolted on, rather than integrated into the piece. The last movement, which is so taut and dramatic, kept lurching to a halt to allow the viola to show off, developments that didn’t enhance the work’s musical power.

In the rest of the piece, Zimmermann’s playing was all one could hope for as well. She played with rich sonority and deep expression in the opening theme. In the second-movement arpeggios that decorate the orchestra’s theme, she played so close to the bridge that she generated an almost electronic buzz, a unique and effective way of knifing through the ensemble’s sound. She brought nervous tension to the tense patterns of the third movement.

Under Tilson Thomas, the orchestra gave an effective account of a work that’s as much a symphony as a viola piece. The tone was full, the playing assured and the music, where necessary, came across with that raucous excitement that Berlioz needs.

The concert opened with a product of the late flowering of the viola repertoire, the Viola Concerto by the eminent American composer Jennifer Higdon. The 2014 work is dedicated to the well-known violist Roberto Díaz, who performed it Saturday (and who also gave the work its Miami premiere with Friends of Chamber Music in 2015).

The most striking music appeared in the first movement, a rhapsodic series of lush melodies that take full advantage of the viola’s incomparable sound.

Díaz, former principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, played with swift, feathery bow strokes at first, in the wandering, improvisational opening minutes that took place within a halo of orchestral tones. As the music gained force, gathering itself together its first climax, he drew intense sound from his instrument, giving full power to the passages at the instrument’s upper range. The orchestra, conducted by Christopher Rountree, a Los Angeles new music specialist, provided a lush bed of sound for the viola’s melodies.

The second movement, a scherzo-like episode, came off as more busy than energetic. It might have needed more pointed, hard-driving playing from both soloist and orchestra. More effective was the last movement, where strongly marked rhythms and a sense of momentum carried the music forward. In fast viola passages, Díaz played with nervous, headlong energy, bringing the work to an effective conclusion.

Next came the fourth movement of The Viola in My Life, a 1971 work by the American composer Morton Feldman. Handling the solo part was Cynthia Phelps, principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, who performed in a long green gown and bare feet, possibly because she was required to move silently among three music stands at different parts of the stage.

This absorbing work felt like an extended walk down a dark alley, with the viola as the human protagonist. Brief eerie chords, soft-edged but knotty with dissonance, percussion rumbles and other orchestral tones alternated with extended passages for viola. Under Tilson Thomas’s direction, the orchestra’s tone was moody and evocative.

Phelps began at a music stand within the orchestra, with the stage illuminated in dark blue, in keeping with the 2 a.m. tone of the music. Her playing was masterful and subtle with searing notes through the instrument’s range, ghostly ascents, and a wistful account of a sad recurring melody.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Harold in Miami Beach: New World wraps “Viola Visions” with a new twist on Berlioz classic”

  1. Posted Nov 03, 2019 at 4:51 pm by James Nickoloff

    This was one of the most incredible concerts I have ever heard. The reviewer nails it. What a treat to have three such skilled violists on the same program–and playing with a great orchestra and conductor. Bravi–and thank you.

Leave a Comment

Sun Oct 20, 2019
at 1:32 pm
1 Comment