Tilson Thomas, New World Symphony lead a delightful tour of Stravinsky works

By Lawrence Budmen

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony in four career-spanning Stravinsky works Saturday night in Miami Beach. Photo: Spencer Lowell

With his bold harmonic palette, acerbic dissonance and imaginative orchestral writing, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) changed music. From his earliest works, his was an original creative voice. Following his path-breaking ballet score Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), classical music would never be the same. 

On Saturday night Michael Tilson Thomas returned to the New World Center to lead the first program of the New World Symphony’s Stravinsky Festival. The concert, entitled “A Stravinsky Journey,” offered a fascinating juxtaposition of works created over five decades. 

Going chronologically backwards, the evening opened with Variations: Aldous Huxley in Memoriam (1963-64), Stravinsky’s final orchestral score. Stravinsky had been critical of the atonal compositions of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. (Although they both migrated to Los Angeles in the 1940’s, Stravinsky steadfastly avoided Schoenberg, even going so far as to sit on the opposite side of the theater at the premiere of a suite to which each contributed a movement.) Yet, in the final decade of his life, Stravinsky embraced serialism. Just as Aaron Copland’s atonal works come out sounding just like Copland, Stravinsky’s atonal music bares his personal stamp. Variations abound in splurges of color from each section of the orchestra. The dry textures and strong accents suggest more than a touch of the composer’s neo-classical works. Tilson Thomas’ pinpoint performance was especially distinguished by the unanimity and vibrant strength of the string playing.

Symphony in Three Movements(1942-45) was Stravinsky’s first major orchestral commission (from the New York Philharmonic) after moving to America. This landmark masterpiece fuses echoes of Stravinsky’s Russian heritage and neo-classicism with the raucous, jazzy sounds of his adopted country. Restless, astringent figurations dominate the symphony’s opening movement. With Tilson Thomas drawing out every ounce of energy and brassy drive, the vibrations of five French horns were potently felt and Wesley Ducote brought rhythmic dexterity to the sizable piano writing. 

Based on part of an aborted score for the film version of Franz Werfel’s Song of Bernadette, the Andante is one of Stravinsky’s most inspired creations — an interlude of elegant melody and transcendent beauty. In important solo parts, Jack Reddick and Leah Stevens (flutes), James Riggs and Joo Bin Yi (oboes) and Chloe Tula (harp) infused the music with keen attention to detail and subtle nuance. The final Con moto is martial, big-band jazz filtered through Stravinsky’s angular musical persona: A duo for harp and piano is almost contrapuntal, and the sudden blasts of three trumpets and final percussion wallop really packed an aural punch. The clarity and accuracy of Arno Tri Pramudia’s trombone solo was a standout among an outstanding corporate ensemble effort.

Petrushka (1910-11) was the evening’s most familiar offering. This collaboration between choreographer Mikhail Fokine and Stravinsky combines the fantasy of a Russian fair and puppet show with primitive Russian folk influences. (The score was played in Stravinsky’s slightly slimmed down and revised orchestration of 1947.) Tilson Thomas’s illuminating reading made the thrice-familiar music sound totally fresh again. Johanna Gruskin’s silvery flute projected the magician bringing the puppets to life and the robust attack of full forces infused the Russian Dance with vigor. Yefim Romanov’s incisive and sweet toned violin solo projected the atmosphere of carnival.

Plangent wind sonorities echoed the puppet’s loneliness in the scene of “Petrushka’s Room.” The tremendous agility of Rebecca Oliverio’s solo trumpet beneath the ominous undertones of Bee Ungar’s bassoon instilled the lilt and color of the Ballerina’s Dance and Waltz. A panorama of gleaming sonorities brought the final fair scene to life. The klezmer-like wail of Angelo Quail’s clarinet portrayed the Russian bear and there was a real sense of balletic lift in the dances of the gypsies and coachmen. The final apparition of Petrushka (after his murder by the Moor) evoked eerie pathos.

Following a standing ovation, Tilson Thomas led Stravinsky’s Scherzo à la Russe as an encore. Originally conceived in 1944 for the Paul Whiteman band, the work was rearranged the following year for symphonic forces. Cut from the same thematic cloth as Petrushka, the music was given just the right extra bit of swing by the conductor and players.

The New World Symphony’s Stravinsky Festival continues with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Apollo (ballet in two scenes with choreography by George Balanchine) Circus Polka and Violin Concerto with soloist James Ehnes and dancers of Miami City Ballet  7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the New World Center in Miami Beach. nws.edu; 305-673-3331.

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Sun Jan 26, 2020
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