MTT, New World provide a season highlight with American program

By Lawrence Budmen

Michael Tilson Thomas led the New World Symphony in an American program Saturday night. File photo: Brandon Patoc

The musicians of the New World Symphony have played under some highly gifted conductors during this season of intimate streamed concerts but when artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas returned to the podium for an all-American program on Saturday night, the difference was palpable. There was added spark in the players’ articulations, rhythms crackled and tonal sonority gleamed.

Tilson Thomas described the five composers on the evening’s menu as “ground-breaking” creative artists. He had a very personal connection to the program’s opening work – Patterns for Orchestra by William Grant Still. When this 1960 score was premiered by the Englewood (California) Symphony, the 18-year-old Tilson Thomas played the prominent English horn part. While Still’s work as a player and arranger for jazz bands, Broadway and Hollywood influenced many of his early orchestral and chamber works, his later compositions are more austere and abstract.

Patterns is a five-movement suite, a study in instrumental textures and short thematic gestures. Tart wind motifs pervade “Magic Crystal” and beneath the quietude of “Tranquil Cove,” restless churning emerges. The long spun French horn melody of “Moon Gold” breaks the score’s mold for a warm conclusion. Still’s mastery of instrumental colors is fully in play throughout the fifteen-minute score. Based on the quality of invention in Patterns, more of Still’s mature works need to be heard.

Tilson Thomas’s keen ear for the delicacies of Still’s orchestral effects was fully evident. Sectional and solo lines were sonorous and vividly conveyed. From the sheer energy that Tilson Thomas brought to the podium, it was evident that he genuinely enjoyed reengaging with Still’s creation.

Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) lived most of his life in Mexico, a largely obscure figure. György Ligeti discovered his music, leading to a revival of Nancarrow’s scores at prominent music festivals and on recordings. Concluding that his keyboard writing would be impossible to play by concert artists, the composer devised a series of Studies for Player Piano. Part of a video of his Canon X showed the punched directives on a piano roll that controlled the mechanical instrument.

Two pieces from earlier in his career illustrated Nancarrow’s influences of jazz and popular culture and his facility in composing for the non-mechanical concert grand. 

Prelude and Blues mixes contrapuntal figurations with an avant-garde twist on bluesy melodies. Thomas Steigerwald perfectly captured the stride piano elements with commanding speed and dexterity. Sonatina (1941) combines honky-tonk melodies with a turbo-charged fugue finale. This unique miniature held no terrors for Wesley Ducote whose elegant and brilliant pianism fully met Nancarrow’s demands on their own terms.

Aaron Copland’s Quiet City (1939-40) originally was conceived as incidental music for a play by Irwin Shaw, produced by the Group Theatre under legendary director Elia Kazan. Working in that rich artistic milieu, Copland produced one of his most spare, emotional scores. The vision of a man walking through the city and hearing his brother playing the trumpet from a distant building was filtered through this pensive reverie for trumpet, English horn and strings.

Tilson Thomas said New World alum Billy Hunter “has been doing us proud for many years” as co-principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera. Playing from one of the satellite stages in the New World Center, Hunter’s clarion trumpet struck the right blend of pessimistic angst and hope. Joo Bin Yi brought full, vibrant sound and artful phrasing to the crucial English horn role. Tilson Thomas is one of our finest Copland conductors and he shaped the lyrical string figures with spacious mastery.

Carl Ruggles (1876-1971) was one of American music’s rugged individualists. Living in an old schoolhouse in Arlington, Vermont, he produced only about nine works in his lifetime. He would play notes and chords literally hundreds of times, attempting to perfect his compositions. Ruggles was indeed an original voice, oblivious to the artistic trends or fashions of any era. (Tilson Thomas recorded his complete works in the 1970’s with the Buffalo Philharmonic.) Angels for seven muted brass is a mournful, solemn chorale marked by bold harmonics. The corporate ensemble vibrations seem at once to suggest the New England congregational tradition and a further cosmos.

Ruggles’ singular achievement was terrifically served by the outstanding brass playing of the ensemble (trumpeters Morgen Low, Matt Shefcik, Luke Balslov and Christopher Danz; trombonists Guangwei Fan and Robert Blumstein; and bass trombonist Noah Roper). In a striking visual, the cameras multiplied the number of players in the course of the score to several times their number.

Tilson Thomas called Ives “America’s greatest composer.” The New England-bred insurance agent was certainly one of the nation’s most influential and path-breaking musicians. His symphonies, piano sonatas and symphonic poems have become part of the concert repertoire. 

Three Places in New England is one of Ives’ great works. The three movements each depict a specific scene, wrapped in Ives’ collage of misty hues and quotations from American hymns, marches and ballads. Performed in Ives’ 1929 scoring for chamber orchestra, the work’s originality continues to astound.

“The Saint-Gaudens in Boston Common” describes a statue of Colonel Robert Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regimen (an all-black unit that fought heroically for the Union in the Civil War) on a hazy day. Despite the distancing of players, Tilson Thomas drew a large, burnished tonal panorama from the strings. He vividly painted the impressionistic soundscape while giving due weight to the Americana quotations of hymns and Stephen Foster tunes. 

In “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut,” Ives envisions the collision of multiple amateur marching bands. Tilson Thomas’ snappy direction produced a splendid racket with the final dissonant chord still producing a shock. 

The pastoral landscape of “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” emerges in entrancing colors. Tilson Thomas elicited real excitement at the rush of water in the big climax. Just as if an audience was present, Tilson Thomas asked individual sections and players to rise at the work’s conclusion.

The video production, directed by Clyde Scott, was a model for streamed performances. Close-ups of the conductor, individual players, instrumental sections and full ensemble adroitly paralleled the dynamic and emotive contours of each of the scores.

Tilson Thomas’ deeply musical leadership, consistently excellent playing and strong choice of repertoire produced the New World’s finest concert of this streaming season.

Robert Spano conducts the New World Symphony in Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, Eleanor Alberga’s Shining Gate of Morpheus, Varèse’s Octandre and Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments. Chad Goodman conducts Stravinsky’s Suite from The Soldier’s Tale. Streaming 7:30 p.m. May 22.

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Sun May 9, 2021
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