Thibaudet’s artistry brings depth to New World’s night of showpieces

By Lawrence Budmen

Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) with the New World Symphony Saturday night..

Orchestral fireworks with a French accent showed the New World Symphony fellows at their best Saturday night at the Arsht Center in Miami. Juanjo Mena was a commanding presence on the podium and the ever-reliable Jean-Yves Thibaudet mixed unbridled virtuosity with supple musicianship in a Saint-Saëns showpiece.

Conducting fellow Chad Goodman opened the evening with a high-voltage romp through Berlioz’s Overture to Benvenuto Cellini. The strings’ tonal sheen and Emily Beare’s elegant solo oboe dominated the slow introduction. Goodman whipped up the excitement to fever pitch at the conclusion with resounding brass.

Thibaudet’s light, crystalline touch seemed tailormade for Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major (“Egyptian”). While Saint-Saëns is widely considered a lightweight among composers, he was an inspired melodist who could create flashy solo vehicles that pleased instrumentalists and audiences alike. The F major concerto is a superior work to the often played Concerto No. 2. Saint-Saëns’ thematic underpinnings are richer and more varied and the piano writing is more complex and challenging.

The Allegro animato opening offers a set of variations on the initial graceful melody. Thibaudet’s fleet approach kept the intensity level high with every note clear and well placed. Even with his consistent elegance, Thibaudet drew a huge range of dynamics from the Steinway. There was crashing power in the big keyboard volleys when called for. Mena’s fine balancing of the prominent wind writing highlighted a true collaborative effort.

Thibaudet’s phrasing of the Arabic-influenced Andante was individual and striking and melodies that could sound prosaic were given spacious nobility. The arpeggiated strokes and intricate hand-crossings of the concluding Molto allegro were thrown off with old fashioned, dashing bravura. The concerto may not be one of the timeless masterpieces of the concertante repertoire but Thibaudet and Mena made it sound like one.

Following prolonged cheers and bravos, Thibaudet played Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess as an encore. Thibaudet’s measured pace and delicacy of articulation produced enticing glints of color, almost as if the piano were not a percussive instrument.

Juanjo Mena. Photo; Michal Novak

Conductor Mena distilled every ounce of instrumental brilliance and tonal hues from Ravel’s panoramic orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at An Exhibition, which concluded the evening.

The performance was accompanied by animation created by thirteen students, alumni and faculty of the Lucas School of Cinematic Art at the University of Southern California. Originally conceived for the multiwall screens of the orchestral academy’s New World Center home during its opening week in 2011, the film was presented in a new single screen version by Scott Winter and Ion Media.

Ranging from visions of well-dressed gallery goers in the promenade sections to Fantasia like cartoons in ‘The Gnome” and “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” to ghostly vistas of dancers in days gone by at “The Old Castle,” The film was undeniably eye-catching and entertaining and the multimedia presentation may have served as a pathway into the music for young and neophyte concertgoers. Yet it also proved a distraction from the music. Ravel’s colorful orchestral canvas doesn’t require any additional visual component.

From Aaron Ney’s pealing trumpet in the initial “Promenade’ to the final regal pages of “The Great Gate of Kiev,”  Mena brought out the tonal effervescence and vivid coloration of this orchestral tour de force. With the exception of a slip by the solo tuba in the “Cattle” section, the entire ensemble offered dynamic, darkly sonorous playing. 

The Spanish conductor unleashed “The Market at Limoges” at top speed. The gorgeous sonority of Matthew Koester’s saxophone evoked the eerie specters of the abandoned castle, and the solemnity and subtly textured brass chorales of “The Catacombs” were put across effectively. Both the grand fanfares and Russian Orthodox chant in the finale were realized with penetrating artistry rather than over bombast. So subtle was Mena’s ear for instrumental felicities that the harp strokes, superbly conveyed by Chloe Tula and Abigail Kent, were transparent over the full ensemble.

Paul Goodwin conducts the New World Symphony in Purcell’s Suite from King Arthur, Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in C minor, C.P.E. Bach’s Sinfonia in G Major, Rameau’s Suite from Les Boréades and Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks  7:30 Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.  305-673-3331

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Sun Jan 12, 2020
at 2:15 pm
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