MTT closes 34 years with the New World Symphony with moving and memorable Mahler

By Lawrence Budmen

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony in Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 Friday night at New World Center.

Billed as “An MTT Celebration,” the New World Symphony’s final concert of the season marked the end of an era. 

Michael Tilson Thomas’s recent resignation as artistic director due to his ongoing battle with brain cancer made his sole NWS appearance of the season at the New World Center that much more special, and a nearly full house was on hand Friday night to greet him. 

Although the program was planned long in advance, it was appropriate that the music of Gustav Mahler, long a cornerstone of the MTT repertoire, served as the evening’s main event. Gil Shaham, one of New World’s most frequent and beloved soloists, offered a rarity from the Classical era as a prelude.

Joseph Bologne (or Boulogne), known as “the black Mozart”in his day (1745-1799), was one of the most prominent musicians in eighteenth century Paris. A violinist, composer and founder of his own chamber orchestra, Boulogne led premieres of Haydn’s six Paris symphonies. He wrote numerous concertos and concertante scores for the violin. 

Shaham offered Boulogne’s Concerto No. 9 in G Major. The score indeed sounds like early Mozart, and is a melodious, unpretentious charmer. Leading the string ensemble without a conductor, Shaham drew precise, well balanced and coordinated playing. Shaham’s purity of sound and clean articulation are as assured as ever. Flashes of the violinist’s fire and bravura technique emerged during a reading both stylish and astutely conveyed. In the high spirited Rondeau finale, Shaham tossed off the main subject with lightness and zest while offering modulated contrast in the central, more pensive episode. The rapport between Shaham and the string players was palpable and a standing ovation greeted the concerto’s conclusion.

Following intermission, a brief film tribute prefaced the main event. “The MTT Years, 1988-2022,” offered a chronicle of the conductor’s history with the orchestral academy. Featuring photos and newspaper clippings from the group’s early tours to Europe and Carnegie Hall, pictures of Tilson Thomas with numerous classical and pop artists who have appeared with the ensemble and rehearsal and performance shots from three decades, the video served as a reminder of the immense contribution the conductor has made to South Florida’s cultural life and the careers of young musicians. At Tilson Thomas’s entrance, the audience immediately rose and the cheers did not subside until he motioned for everyone to be seated.

While he has given many outstanding performances of a wide and diverse repertoire in Miami, Tilson Thomas’ readings of the Mahler symphonies have always been special. Like his mentor Leonard Bernstein, he seems to feel this composer’s music very deeply. While less interpretively idiosyncratic than Bernstein, his performances are more than a mere musical event. They are an experience that encompass Mahler’s world in all of its emotional chaos and complexity. 

Lasting over seventy minutes, the Symphony No. 5 is a vast journey from minor key to major, from darkness to blazing light. Conducting with his accustomed vigor, Tilson Thomas led a performance that mixed spaciousness, grandeur and drama in perfect proportion. The large ensemble played with hair-trigger flexibility to changes of meter and a minute attention to detail. (Ten New World alums who are now members of major orchestras or teach at eminent music schools served as special coaches and played as assistant principals in the ensemble.)

The opening trumpet call rang out full and clear and Tilson Thomas’ deliberate pacing of the opening movement funeral march immediately set an aura of tragedy. He brought out Mahler’s allusions to village band music and steered the shifts of mood and tone with a firm hand. The final two plucked string notes, which in less focused performances can sound like an afterthought, were emphatically rendered. 

“Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence” was Mahler’s indication for the second movement and the initial bars conveyed that sense of fierce terror. There was a natural pulse and inherent tension in the secondary theme.  The massed strings’ depth of corporate sonority glowed and the dark undertow of the eight double basses (placed on the left hand side of the stage) was always present in the mass of sound. Brass catapulted the cataclysmic climaxes with terrific impact.

The Scherzo is one of those Mahlerian waltzes with darker undercurrents intermittently coming forth. Tilson Thomas made it sparkle, highlighting the almost chamber-like moments amid the orchestral firepower; Scott Leger’s solo horn resounded splendidly. A fiery coda telegraphed forced gaiety that seemed obvious from the beginning of the movement. 

In many ways, the Adagietto is the symphony’s heart and Tilson Thomas’ soulful, measured realization did it full justice. Lyrical and heart-rending in its sheer beauty, the idiomatic traversal seemed to encapsulate the MTT era at New World. With Phoebe Powell’s harp wonderfully blended, the high point of the finely textured string playing was the myriad variations of softness, the  whispered passages emerged in a most touching manner.

With brass and winds in exceptional form, the finale completed the cycle from despair to joyful triumph. Fugal writing was given clarity and force. The Landler interludes were elegantly phrased and the final proclamation was organically achieved. The entire performance represented Tilson Thomas and the orchestra at their best, emanating the essence of Mahler’s creation.

Photo: Alex Marlow

The extended ovation that followed this valedictory performance was finally interrupted by the conductor. Thanking the musicians for their dedication, he said that he would be back to lead important projects. 

In nearly three-and-a half decades at the helm of the New World Symphony, Tilson Thomas has given audiences many nights of great music-making while training several generations of orchestral players. His legacy is monumental and will continue to energize and advance the performing arts both locally and globally for years to come.

The New World Symphony repeats the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the New World Center in Miami Beach. The concert is sold out but there will be a livestream online and a Wallcast of the performance in Soundscape Park adjacent to the hall.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “MTT closes 34 years with the New World Symphony with moving and memorable Mahler”

  1. Posted May 08, 2022 at 9:59 am by Bob Knotts

    Excellent review! I was there at the same performance… And it will remain among my most treasured musical memories.

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