Milarsky, New World serve up the art of the modern with American program

By Lawrence Budmen

Jeffrey Milarsky conducted the New World Symphony in music of John Adams, Steve Reich and Augusta Read Thomas Saturday night.

The New World Symphony’s first Sounds of the Times concert each season usually coincides with Art Basel week, providing a musical counterpart to the exhibitions of contemporary art. 

Something special often adorns the program and this year’s edition was no exception. On Saturday night, Jeffrey Milarsky returned to the podium at New World Center to conduct an American program featuring a great vocal work by Steve Reich, a symphonic synthesis of a John Adams opera and a gripping miniature sound portrait by Augusta Read Thomas. The trio of diverse works all received excellent performances under the baton of Milarsky, a contemporary music specialist.

Thomas’s Prayer Bells is a twelve-minute symphonic canvass that is rich in bright tolling sonorities, from bells as well as winds, brass and percussion. The work was commissioned two decades ago for the Pittsburgh Symphony and its then-music director Mariss Jansons, who passed away last week at the age of 76.

Opening with tense string phrases that build to a crescendo, accompanying bells, harp and mallet instruments herald the entry of the brass like a burst of light. A central episode features violas and cellos playing expansive thematic material, punctuated by bells and harp. Fanfares suggesting Copland but with darker riffs lead to a renewal of energy. Both vital and spiritual, this vignette is masterfully conceived.

Milarsky led a finely detailed reading and the ensemble playing was consistently strong and propulsive. In a filmed introduction, composer Thomas noted that, after listening to a New World rehearsal of the score, she believes the fellows of the orchestral academy play the work as well as any orchestra in the world.

John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony is adapted from his 2005 opera about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the birth of the atomic bomb. “The Laboratory,” the opening movement, is based on the opera’s overture. An explosive opening is followed by a chorale in the winds. Adams’ typical short repetitive fragments energetically rise in the strings. Ominous brass pronouncements resound in “Panic,” which depicts the pressure on the scientists and their vision of the bomb’s devastation, though the brassy exclamations are obvious and overcooked.

Still Adams’ invention is likable for its sheer nonstop voltage and thrust. The final section is something special indeed. Adams has transcribed Oppenheimer’s aria “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (from the words of John Donne) for solo trumpet. The pensive, long limbed melody is one of the composer’s finest inspiration, remarkably direct and powerful in its dark simplicity. One wishes Adams would write more music of this nature.

Brilliant and incisive string articulation and resounding brass interjections were elicited by Milarsky, the perfect advocate for Adams’ distinctive brand of modified minimalism. In the eloquent finale, Aaron Ney’s trumpet sang in clear and beautiful tone and with suavely nuanced shading that was almost vocal. James Riggs’ solo oboe set the contemplative mood.

Steve Reich’s Tehillim is one of the pioneering minimalist’s most unique and original scores. Performed in the 1981 version for four female voices and chamber ensemble, this setting of Hebrew texts from four psalms is an exhilarating experience.

“The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19) and “Who is the man that desires life” (Psalm 34) fit surprisingly well around Reich’s characteristic driving pulse here colored with a Judaic accent. Reich’s signature electric keyboard and organ add color to vocal lines that flicker with touches of the Swingle Singers and Carmina Burana to delightful effect. 

Six percussionists clap in rhythm as well as playing a wide variety of instruments. “With the Merciful, You are Merciful” (Psalm18) threads Middle Eastern melodic textures, accompanied by mallet instruments. The luminous blending of two sopranos, a high soprano and mezzo produces a sense of calm and peace. Repeated final “hallelujahs” of “Praise him with drum and dance” (Psalm 150) are irresistible in vitality and warmth of spirit. The final shimmer of percussion combined with voices blares forth with joy. Reich is at the peak of his considerable powers in this festive thirty-minute suite.

Four singers from the Synergy Vocals, a group that has worked within film soundtracks, pop and crossover recordings, and contemporary classical paths, blended felicitously and were on top of Reich’s rhythmic outbursts and rapid changes of meter. Micaela Haslam (the foursome’s leader), Rachel Weston (a former member of the Swingle Singers), Caroline Jaya-Ratnam and Heather Cairncross were ethereal in solos and effusive in the tricky ensemble sections. Milarsky brought out the subtleties of Reich’s vocal and instrumental conception

Xian Zhang conducts the New World Symphony in Rossini’s Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (“Turkish”) with James Ehnes as soloist 7:30 p.m. December 14 and 2 p.m. December 15 at the New World Center in Miami Beach.   305-673-3331

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Sun Dec 8, 2019
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