A Tilson Thomas ode to the tropics is the standout in New World’s percussion extravaganza

By Lawrence Budmen

Guest artist Svet Stoyanov of the Frost School of Music (left) and New World Symphony fellow Caleb Breidenbaugh rehearsing for Saturday’s performance by the NWS Percussion Consort. Photo: Raphael Baldwin

It was marimbas and vibraphones, not strings and brass, dominating the stage at Miami Beach’s New World Center on Saturday night during a concert by New World Symphony Percussion Consort. The theme of this percussive two-part program was, in the broadest sense, nature — with one work a cri de couer on behalf of the oceans’ inhabitants and one a more personal reflection on the tropics.

The latter, Island Music, was written for percussion ensemble by the New World’s co-founder and artistic guide, Michael Tilson Thomas, and premiered in Miami Beach in 2003 — back when the orchestral academy’s gleaming Gehry campus in South Beach was still a dream. Twenty years along and played in new surroundings, Island Music retains its grace and power.

The concert opened with Seaborne, a 2016 work by Emmy-winning composer Garth Neustadter. The three-part score, written for six percussion instruments and projected visuals, rippled with New Age syncopations as it gave voice to fears about the fate of endangered marine life shown on screen in stunning photographs — airborne, surface and underwater — taken by Kjell van Sice. 

In “Above,” the opening movement, two pianos maintained rhythm while two marimbas and two vibraphones played thematic fragments that grew and evolved in length and volume. Footage of the sun over water dominated “At,” the second movement, set to a gently lilting earworm of a melody. The finale “Within” was powered by minimalistic repetition before taking a quiet turn, with a solo piano having the last word.

Neustadter won an Emmy Award for his soundtrack to a 2011 PBS American Masters documentary on the naturalist and environmental advocate John Muir. He is clearly a well-trained professional in this form of multimedia musical canvas. The 30-minute score for Seaborne is skillfully conceived and, judging by the enthusiastic audience response, a genuine crowd pleaser. But the work is ultimately superficial, although it was undeniably well-played on Saturday. 

The evening’s featured guest, University of Miami Frost School of Music faculty member Svet Stoyanov, joined with a New World percussion fellow, Caleb Breidenbaugh, for laudatory work on Neustadter’s busy, complex vibraphone writing. Another pair of New World fellows, Ben Cornavaca and Jennifer Marasti, ably navigated the supporting marimba lines. Michael Linville, the New World’s dean of instrumental performance, and Noah Sonderling, a New World piano fellow, handled the perky keyboard parts skillfully.

(Intermission began with a scare. As the lights went on, a scream was heard — an audience member had collpased after rising from her seat. After being tended to by companions and other patrons, she came to and was able to return for the program’s second half.)

Introducing the evening’s featured attraction, the New World’s celebrated co-founder and artistic director laureate was greeted with a cheering ovation. He told the audience that all of his compositions are “psycho-acoustic diaries” reflecting particular moments or events in his life, and that Island Music arose from his visits to islands in Indonesia and the Caribbean.

The pride of place for Tilson’s work over Neustadter’s on Saturday wasn’t just a function of his standing in these precincts: Tilson Thomas’ creation, though ten minutes shorter in duration, is vastly more sophisticated than the Neustadter score. Tilson Thomas’ fusion of classical, folk and pop influences melds seamlessly while challenging the players’ technique, timing and stamina. 

A solo marimba introduced Island Music’s catchy principal motif, which underwent transformations throughout its engrossing 20-minute run time. As Tilson Thomas had pointed out in his remarks, there was an allusion to Arthur Benjamin’s Jamaican Rumba — once a pops concert standard — in the work’s opening frame. “In the Clearing,” the second part, brought contrasting mournful moments reflecting Thomas’ Judaic roots and his fascination with the Indonesian gamelan, along with a touch of jazz in the manner of Bernstein and West Side Story. “Ride Outs,” the finale, moved at a swinging pace before an unexpectedly soft ending.

The work’s premiere in Miami Beach two decades ago featured San Francisco-based marimba players Nancy Zeltsman and Jack Van Geem — who traveled to South Florida recently to coach the “new crew,” in Tilson Thomas’ words, for this revival. 

Stoyanov, for his part, displayed tremendous rhythmic dexterity in the crucial solo marimba part. (The Frost faculty member had likewise impressed earlier this season in a performance of composer Jennifer Higdon’s Duo Duel for two percussionists and orchestra.) New World percussion fellow Joe Desotelle was equally agile and musically incisive. 

In their supporting marimba lines, Breidenbaugh and Marasti were fully equal to the demands of Tilson Thomas’ tour de force, whether barely touching their mallets to instruments in contemplative moments, or delivering fierce rhythmic barrages. Playing a variety of percussion instruments — timpani, cymbals, bongos and maracas — Cornavaca and the Frost School’s Antek Olesik did not miss a beat or a bar.

The players and Tilson Thomas stepped forward afterwards to acknowledge the rapturous audience response to this irresistible, one-of-a kind percussion work. Tilson Thomas even kicked up his feet, dancer-style. Even through recent health problems his enduring charisma and vitality make him a force to be reckoned with. 

David Robertson conducts the New World Symphony in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and Florence Price’s Piano Concerto with soloist Michelle Cann. Conducting fellow Chad Goodman leads Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta. 8 p.m. March 11 at the Arsht Center in Miami. nws.edu


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Sun Feb 26, 2023
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