Two debuts spark an outstanding concert by New World Symphony

By Lawrence Budmen

Roderick Cox led the New World Symphony in music of Salonen, Herbert and Tchaikovsky Saturday night.

In 1894 Antonin Dvořak attended a concert that featured the premiere of Victor Herbert’s Cello Concerto in E minor at Carnegie Hall with the composer as soloist.  Dvořak was so impressed with the score that he resolved to write his own solo-orchestral work for the instrument. His concerto became a landmark of the repertoire which every major cellist performs while the Herbert work that inspired it has fallen to the wayside. 

On Saturday night Zuill Bailey made an impressive debut with the New World Symphony in a welcome revival of Herbert’s creation. Conductor Roderick Cox also had an auspicious first appearance on the podium at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

Best known for his early 20th century operettas (Naughty Marietta, The Red Mill, Babes in Toyland), Herbert was also a formidable cello soloist, symphonic conductor and composer of two operas that were produced at the Met. His Cello Concerto is an unabashedly romantic showpiece, embellished with the memorable melodic inspiration that made Herbert famous for his more commercial efforts. Similar to Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto in A minor, the score is in one continuous movement but with three distinct sections that correspond to the normal concerto structure. While not a towering masterpiece, the Herbert score offers fine inspiration and is a bravura vehicle.

Zuill Bailey

When given a top-notch performance, this work can be most impressive and that is exactly what Bailey and Cox provided. The orchestral introduction was vigorously conveyed and, from his first entrance, Bailey dug in with plush tone, gutsy energy and fleet pacing. The beautiful theme of the Andante tranquillo section was phrased elegantly and Bailey’s intonation remained true even in the instrument’s highest register. Unusually for a New World audience, the performance was interrupted by applause at the conclusion of this mini movement. Although that broke the musical flow, in many ways it was a spontaneous tribute to Herbert’s melodic facility and Bailey’s burnished playing. The final Allegro demonstrated Bailey’s command of his instrument and agility at accelerated speed. Cox and the ensemble matched him in power, intensity and corporate sonic allure. There was a prolonged ovation for this worthy traversal of a virtuosic rarity.

Former resident conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, Cox consistently drew an unusually large sonority from the New World fellows. He opened the evening with Helix by the multitalented Esa-Pekka Salonen. There have been many short, brassy overture type concert openers written over recent decades. Most of them fall plea-antly on the ear and are instantly forgettable.

While Salonen’s nine minute score ostensibly belongs to that genre, it stands out for its substance. Opening with softly struck gong and percussion, the main thematic material arises from the winds and is taken up by the strings. Written as a continuous accelerando, the brilliant climax arrives organically before abrupt climactic phrases. The vignette demonstrates that Salonen, even when writing in miniature, is a major composer as well as one of the world’s leading conductors. Strings, winds and brass played at top form and the hard working percussion contingent were a standout in Salonen’s tricky rhythmic flourishes.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor can emerge heavy handed and lugubrious in uninspired readings but Cox’s fiery rendition avoided the pitfalls some conductors fall into. Brass were strong and solid at the first statement of the fate motif. Cox’s tautly controlled leadership gave the first movement coherence and momentum. Tempos were well judged and balances astutely coordinated. The strings sounded especially full and rich. Avoiding diffuse or episodic lethargy, the movement’s coda sizzled. 

Cox did not linger over the plaintive oboe theme of the Andantino, his pulse and forward motion intact. The brisk, unified pizzicatos of the Scherzo were nicely varied in attack and dynamics. Without pause, Cox commenced the finale, generating plenty of excitement. The five horns made a mighty sound and every detail of the orchestral fabric was clear and transparent down to the triangle’s role. Tchaikovsky’s extravagant orchestral writing was given full thrust.

Cox thanked the standing, cheering audience for braving the traffic during spring break and the downtown Ultra festival and offered what he called “a Ukrainian folk song” to conclude the evening. Myroslav Skoryk’s Melody was a haunting, gorgeous idyll for strings. Played with lustrous tonal sheen, it  provided a moving end to an outstanding concert.

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

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Sun Mar 27, 2022
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