Gemma New makes impressive NWS debut with a fresh, dramatic “Eroica”

By Lawrence Budmen

Gemma New conducted the New World Symphony in music of Beethoven and Alban Berg Friday night. Photo: Roy Cox

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major is one of those history-changing works that defined the composer’s creative voice and revivified the musical canon. 

On Friday night Gemma New conducted the New World Symphony in a reading of this monumental score that swept away the cobwebs of routine and brought out the revolutionary originality of the “Eroica.” 

New, musical director of the Hamilton (Ontario) Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, was substituting for Michael Tilson Thomas in her podium debut at the New World Center. The exceptional music-making the New Zealand-born conductor  displayed provided ample reason for inviting her back soon.

With New’s fleet pacing, the opening Allegro con brio was light on its feet and refreshingly bereft of heavy textures. The performance achieved a sensible middle ground between the spare vibrato of period ensembles and big-band modern orchestra. String and brass attacks were crisp, the movement flowed organically with dynamics beautifully calibrated across a wide range. There was steady, forward momentum in the famous funeral march of the second movement, with New’s balancing of sections superb; the wind principals excelled in their solo lines.

The Scherzo proved invigorating through rhythmic urgency and clarity of the lower string figurations; the three horn players’ blending and accuracy took special honors in the treacherous trio. 

The Allegro molto finale can easily turn episodic but New brought tension and sweep to the entire theme and variations. Lithe spirit abounded in the initial iterations of the melody (written by Beethoven for his Contredances and Creatures of Prometheus ballet score). With all sections in top form, there was a sense of inevitability from the movement’s first bars to a rousing coda (which, for once, did not emerge anticlimactic). This reading of the “Eroica” achieved that rare quality of genuine greatness. New, stepping down from the podium, joined in applauding the individual players and full ensemble as she asked them to stand.

Prior to intermission, Christian Tetzlaff took the solo spotlight for Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. 

Christian Tetzlaff performed Berg’s Violin Concerto Friday night.

Tetzlaff is an artist who never plays it safe and his interpretation of Berg’s final completed work was striking for its variegated colors and agitated aura. Tetzlaff’s soaring tone and subtle bow strokes in the initial Adagio could effectively turn gutsy and harsh in dramatic climaxes. In the Allegretto that followed, he captured the Viennese schmaltz beneath the music’s dark shadow. Tetzlaff engendered real excitement in the second movement for the rapid-fire virtuosity of the Allegro section. 

The sweetness of his tone in the valedictory Adagio captured the music’s poignancy. (Berg dedicated the score “to the memory of an angel” following the death from polio of Manon Gropius, daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, widow of Gustav.) Tetzlaff’s eloquent shaping of the violin figures over Bach’s chorale “Est ist genug” (It is enough) in the winds and the rich tonal warmth in the concerto’s final pages brought a memorable reading of a 20th century masterpiece to an emotive conclusion.

New was totally immersed in Berg’s sound world. She could whip the orchestra into a frenzy in fierce climaxes and achieve the most supple detailing of inner voices. There was pathos in the Bach quotations and the melding of orchestral paths with the solo violin was well-nigh perfect.

Conducting fellow Chad Goodman opened the evening with the Overture to Song of Hiawatha by Samuel Coleridge Taylor (1875-1912). The eleven-minute work was a curtain raiser to Taylor’s three cantatas based on the epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which were all the rage in Edwardian England and continued to be played at the London Proms concerts into the 1930’s. 

Almost a melodious operetta medley, the overture is bolstered by brassy fanfares, big romantic string themes and opulent orchestration. There is something quaintly charming about this old-fashioned, nineteenth century concoction. Goodman drew full-bodied playing from the large orchestral forces but his dynamics seemed limited to varying degrees of forte.

Never mind. There is one remaining opportunity to hear Gemma New, a terrifically gifted young conductor and a great violinist in masterworks by two contrasting B’s—Beethoven and Berg.

The New World Symphony will repeat the program 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

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Sat Feb 12, 2022
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