New World Symphony returns live and in person with impressive stands by Reif and Cooke

By Lawrence Budmen

Christian Reif conducted the New World Symphony’s season-opening concert Saturday night.

It has been nineteen months since the New World Symphony gave a live concert before an audience. Following some pre-season performances, the orchestral academy officially opened its season Saturday night at Miami Beach’s New World Center.

The excitement on stage and in the well-populated auditorium was palpable. Despite the absence of artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas, who is recovering from an operation for removal of a brain tumor, the music making was nothing short of outstanding.

Tilson Thomas appeared on the screens in a recorded video, from his home in the San Francisco Bay area, to greet the audience and thank the orchestra’s patrons and leadership for keeping the organization alive and visible during the past year. He said that he hoped to return in January and extolled the talents of the evening’s substitute conductor Christian Reif and mezzo-soprano soloist Sasha Cooke. 

Cooke is something of a specialist in the vocal works of Gustav Mahler. She has given memorable performances locally of the composer’s Das Lied van der Erde with Tilson Thomas and NWS in 2016 and the mezzo part in the Symphony No. 2 with Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra in 2019.

While Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer is often sung by a baritone, the four sections work equally well with a female voice, especially a world-class one like that of Cooke. Mahler wrote these songs early in his career during his conducting tenure in the German city of Kassel after an unhappy love affair with a young soprano. Mahler’s own texts chart a lovesick artist’s journey from joy and sadness to resignation.

In “When my Love has her Wedding Day,” the opening song, Cooke’s mahogany lower register projected the depth of emotional sadness at the protagonist seeing his love wed another. Her tone lightened as she sang about the chirping bird and the brightness of nature. Cooke’s radiant timbre blossomed in the folk like strains of “I Walked across the Field this Morning.” The initial brass proclamation that heralds the change of mood for “I Have a Gleaming Knife” was appropriately shocking and Cooke’s declamatory power telegraphed deep despair. Her top register soared at the description of “The Two Blue Eyes of My Love,” her sound turning warm and soft at the final realization of love lost. Cooke’s affinity for Mahler’s late romantic idiom was complete, her vocalism deeply felt and authoritative.

Reif’s accompanying leadership was fully alive to the wonders of Mahler’s orchestral writing. Throughout, the emotive underpinning of the lower strings was audible and harp and wind lines pinpointed. The striking of the gong that concludes the third song was shattering, emphatically announcing the lover’s dark state of mind and final journey.

Reif is a former New World conducting fellow and was a resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. He proved highly impressive during his apprentice years at New World, especially when taking over a Sounds of the Times concert of complex contemporary scores on short notice. While most of his conducting opportunities entailed overtures and short works, any doubts about his podium skills in longer, deeper works were put to rest by his performances.

Reif opened the concert with Ballade for Orchestra by the late 19th, early 20th century black English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. This work comes from the tradition of British light classical music, later exemplified by Eric Coates and Albert Ketèlbey. Yet Coleridge- Taylor was a far more sophisticated composer, his orchestration luxuriant and melodic inspiration engaging. 

The opening scherzo-like theme of Ballade is in the same vein as the main motif of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the snappy brass and winds registered the first pages with high gleam. In the contrasting romantic melody, Reif kept the tempo lithe and the aura sunny.

The one hour and twenty minute concert, performed without intermission, concluded with a rousing reading of Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major (“Spring”). Reif’s brisk tempo in the first movement Allegro molto vivace seemed breathless but he quickly settled down, drawing sharp playing and instrumental details emerged with x-ray like clarity. The highly exposed five horns were particularly impressive in solidity and accuracy of articulation.

Reif brought out the lyrical song of the Larghetto, almost like an elongated Schumann lied. Reif’s blending of winds and strings was well-nigh ideal. The ensemble’s vigorous attack at the onset of the Scherzo was a real wake-up call after the pastoral rumination of the slow movement. Reif’s deft phrasing of the trio section was a delight. The finale put a final robust and uplifting exclamation point on an outstanding reading of Schumann’s least-played symphony. 

Reif returns November 20-21 with a program of works by Julia Perry, Sibelius and Brahms. There is one remaining opportunity this afternoon to experience the return of one of Miami’s greatest cultural assets and the work of a greatly talented young conductor.

The program was dedicated to arts patron and activist Susana Ibargὓen (wife of former Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibargὓen) who died in August from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). A poem by P. Scott Campbell was read over the hall’s audio system and projected on the video facilities above the stage and on the side walls, extolling the majesty of art in a troubled world.

The New World Symphony repeats the concert 2 p.m. Sunday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the New World Symphony in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (and conducting fellow Chad Goodman leads James Lee III’s Through Orion’s Nebula) 8 p.m. October 16 at the Arsht Center in Miami.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “New World Symphony returns live and in person with impressive stands by Reif and Cooke”

  1. Posted Oct 10, 2021 at 9:26 pm by Gail Harris

    It was such a privilege to be attending this Sunday concert at the NW Center and listening to the New World Symphony performing, what I believe, was one of the best concerts.

    Reif and Cooke were so outstanding as was the planning of this program; opening with greetings from Michael Tilson Thomas; a poem with such beauty in memory of Susan I. And the visual clip of an award given to a musician who is a cancer survivor from childhood….and spotlighting her as well with introducing the musical piece called Hope

    I do look forward to watching C Reif a conducting again on Nov 21 and 22 as his style of conducting spoke volumes to me.

    We are so fortunate to have the New World Symphony’s home base in our beautiful city on Miami Beach
    Thank you.
    Gail Harris

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Sun Oct 10, 2021
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