Oundjian leads a mixed night with New World Symphony

By Lawrence Budmen

Peter Oundjuan conducted the New World Symphony Friday night at New World Center.

After last weekend’s deeply probing performance of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben led by new artistic director Stéphane Denève, the New World Symphony offered a more uneven program Friday night at the New World Center. The quality of orchestral playing remained at the same high level but the music-making, at times, came up short.

Making his final appearance as NWS conducting fellow, Chad Goodman directed the evening’s most satisfying performance. His lithe, cogent account of the Overture to Mozart’s The Magic Flute was thrown off with spare vibrato, crisp attacks and bracing articulation. This stylish Mozart, executed with verve, was a fitting coda to Goodman’s four-year tenure during which he was called upon to take over performances from Michael Tilson Thomas and other previously scheduled conductors.

Peter Oundjian, principal conductor of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, was the concert’s podium guest. Oundjian can be a wildly variable leader. His reading of Elgar’s Enigma Variations tended to veer toward extremes of tempo. Slow sections (including the initial statement of the theme) emerged sluggish while fast variations went into high drive. “Nimrod” (Variation IX) was, appropriately, the high point of the reading with Oundjian giving spacious shape and depth to the solemn pages. 

Much of the richness of string tone from Denúve’s concert last week carried over, the players bringing lustrous sonorities to the penultimate “Romanza.” Here Oundjian effectively pictured the contrasting reflections of darkness and light. Balances were less than ideal with the brass too often dominant, especially in the Allegro Presto finale.

Oundjian opened the program with a spirited performance of Joan Tower’s Duos. The 1994 work spotlights duets by paired instruments. The work opens in dark angst with two cellos, reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, moving through duos from oboes, clarinets, flutes, horns and trumpets plus a trio of percussionists getting a workout. In a video introduction, Tower said she wanted to give prominence to second-chair players because they are often just as good as the principals. 

Like most of her scores, Tower’s Duos is concise and expertly crafted, and there is a reflective, pessimistic, aura to this opus which rivets attention. The players reveled in their solo opportunities, each section encompassing Tower’s complex writing with assurance.

Oundjian commissioned and premiered Joel Thompson’s To Awaken the Sleeper for the Colorado Music Festival (along with the Baltimore and Seattle symphonies). (Thompson is a doctoral candidate at Yale University and composer in residence at Houston Grand Opera.) 

Works for narrator and orchestra are a notoriously difficult genre to bring off, yet Thompson almost succeeds. Few writers have captured the hopes and tragedies of African-Americans like James Baldwin. Thompson has utilized texts from Baldwin’s essays and letters and his final public speech in 1986, one year before his death, at the National Press Club. While Baldwin’s words are often filled with anger and bitterness, he also expresses hope for a better, more peaceful and equitable world.

At 21 minutes, Thompson’s work feels overextended. He is more successful at expressing Baldwin’s brighter visions than portraits of injustice. What Thompson intends as an orchestral depiction of chaos is merely raucous, unwieldy noise. His quotation of “The Battle Cry of Freedom” effectively matches the irony of Baldwin’s words and the final hymn is stirring and beautiful. With his lyrical gifts, it will be arresting to see what Thompson’s operatic odyssey yields.

Narrating his own composition, Thompson’s recitation was straightforward, avoiding melodramatic exaggeration (which has ruined more than a few performances of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait). Oundjian clearly believes in this work and led a detailed, well coordinated performance.

The New World Symphony will repeat the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

The season concludes with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird and, with Miami City Ballet, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Stravinsky’s Agon. Andrew Grams conducts Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks.  8 p.m. May 6 and 2 p.m. May 7 at the New World Center. nws.edu

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Sat Apr 15, 2023
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