MTT closes New World season in high-stepping style with a Stravinsky celebration

By Lawrence Budmen

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony in music of Igor Stravinsky Saturday night in Miami Beach. Photo: Vahan Stepanyan

The varied styles of Igor Stravinsky spanned nearly his entire creative career. The New World Symphony’s artistic director laureate Michael Tilson Thomas returned Saturday night to lead a collaborative Stravinsky program with Miami City Ballet Saturday night to close the orchestra’s season. 

With the New World Center seating reconfigured to provide an improvised orchestra pit (which necessitated reduced seating in the hall), the venue’s flexibility was as much on display as the music and dance. The only time the musicians were on stage in normal fashion was for the opening Concerto in E-flat for chamber orchestra, aka Dumbarton Oaks. Named for the Washington-area estate at which the work was first performed, the late 1930’s score finds Stravinsky in neo-Baroque mode, writing a modernist update to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. 

A terse, dance-like figure is the catchy motif of the second movement while suggestions of the primitive Russian Stravinsky of Petrushka manage to assert themselves in the final section. The entire fifteen-minute concerto finds Stravinsky at the top of his artistic game, with thematic invention and instrumental combinations providing a parade of unexpected turns and bright sonorities.

Andrew Grams, former music director of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in Illinois, led the 15 players in a rhythmically crisp performance that clearly delineated minute instrumental details. The pivotal fugal episodes emerged cleanly and Gram skillfully handled Stravinsky’s myriad changes of meter and dynamics. In a precise, reading by the ensemble, Emily Bieker (flute) and Thea Humphries and Kyle Thompson (horns) were especially impressive.

Tilson Thomas received a standing ovation from the audience upon his entrance. He has had a long history, both musically and personally with Stravinsky, as he explained in a recorded video. The young MTT attended the composer’s rehearsals and concerts in Los Angeles and played oboe under his baton. 

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Stravinsky and Tilson Thomas has always been a winning combination and it proved potent as ever in a hugely colorful traversal of the 1919 suite from The Firebird. The ballet put Stravinsky on the world’s artistic map and was the first of many commissions from impresario Serge Diaghilev.

From the initial, rumbling bars of the introduction, the winds displayed sweetness of sonority and the strings resounded with a dark rich sheen. “The Dance of the Firebird” sparkled at a brisk, rollicking clip. Tilson Thomas evoked Russian romanticism (and the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s teacher) in the “Dance of the Princesses.” The first chord of ‘Infernal Dance of Kastchei” rang out like a thunderbolt. Tilson Thomas brought out the music’s savagery and early hints of The Rite of Spring to come four years later. 

The conductor balanced clarity of textures and expressive sentiment in adept proportion in the”Berceuse” and drew subtle variants of pianissimos in the transitional music, prior to the gleaming entry of the horn theme for the finale. With first-rate playing across all sections, Tilson Thomas put the thrilling originality of Stravinsky’s first significant composition front and center, dusting off the routine of many less scrupulous efforts.

Dancers from Miami City Ballet took the stage in the program’s second half, spotlighting the work of two of the greatest choreographers of the twentieth century, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. 

Robbins’ setting of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun offered a lyrical interlude. Rather than attempt to recreate Vaslav Nijinsky’s once-scandalous original choreographic setting of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem upon which Debussy’s music is based, Robbins pictures two dancers in a  studio. The male dancer lays on the floor) when the female dancer enters, executing slinky movements on pointe. Together they work at the barres and practice lifts before the female disappears. Was she real or a figment of the male’s dreamy imagination? Robbins’ sensual choreography (far different than his dances for West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof) was vibrantly danced by Cameron  Catazaro and, especially, Hannah Fischer, a ballerina of formidable talent. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra gave Debussy’s famous work a lustrous and polished performance.

Agon (1957) was the culmination of a long-running partnership between Stravinsky and Balanchine that encompassed numerous ballets and even the Circus Polka (featuring ballerinas and elephants) for Ringling Brothers. 

Stravinsky daringly mixed Baroque dance forms with atonality in Agon. While that may seem a contradiction in terms, Stravinsky’s genius carried it off superbly. Despite its astringency, the score manages to delight the ear with spare, bright textures. Although scored for a large orchestra, the full group almost never plays together. Brass and wind lines are crucially exposed. Tilson Thomas conducted a spirited performance that fully displayed the classicism and avant-garde tendencies that uneasily vie for attention in Stravinsky’s final ballet creation.

Balanchine fielded twelve dancers (4 men and 8 women) to match the work’s 12 sections and the 12-tone scale. The pas de deux, athletic and romantic, is the choreography’s summit but the full ensemble sections are eye-filling as well. There are more than a few suggestions of Balanchine’s Broadway and Hollywood triumphs and the ballet’s final section is downright jazzy. The twelve MCB dancers were superbly coordinated and evidenced total idiomatic affinity for Balanchine’s aesthetic.

The program’s pairing of terrific dancing and stylish music making concluded the New World Symphony’s season on a high note.

The New World Symphony and Miami City Ballet repeat the program 2 p.m. Sunday at the New World Center in Miami Beach.


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Sun May 7, 2023
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