Denève wraps first New World season with searing intensity of Stravinsky and brilliant world premiere

By Lawrence Budmen

Stéphane Denève conducted the New World Symphony in music of Stravinsky and Connesson Saturday night.

The final program of the New World Symphony’s season on Saturday night epitomized the new Stéphane Denève era. Innovative programming, first-rate performances that display the orchestral academy’s fellows at their best and a sheer sense of excitement have characterized the artistic director’s first season and the concluding concert was no exception. A 20th-century masterpiece, music by a distinctive American composer, and the first performance of an atmospheric work by one of today’s most gifted creative artists comprised the bill of fare at the New World Center.

The concert’s first half was devoted to two scores by cinematic icon John Williams, conceived forty years apart. Just Down West Street… on the left was written in 2015 in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. The title refers to directions locals give to tourists and first-time visitors on how to get to the campus of the Boston Symphony’s summer home. This five-minute score is quintessential Williams and it could hail from one of his movie soundtracks with a mini-brass fanfare, racing allegro figurations and a surging string theme. Conducting fellow Molly Turner led a tightly controlled rendition with the players bringing exuberance to Williams’ work.

Williams’ Violin Concerto No. 1 initially dates from 1974 but has been revised on several occasions. Written before the composer was a well-known Hollywood celebrity, the work reflects his mourning at the death of his first wife Barbara, who passed away at the age of 41. 

Written in a more complex language than Williams’ film music, the concerto certainly reflects trauma and also serves as a virtuoso vehicle. Chromaticism in the manner of Alban Berg wafts through the thirty-minute creation. There are allusions to Prokofiev’s two violin concertos in the opening Moderato and the final Maestoso is a perpetual motion a la Bartok. The concerto’s second movement is its strongest section. A theme that sounds almost romantic in the 19th-century manner, with harmonic spicing, vividly conveys sadness, alternating between the solo violin and horn. While it is alluring to hear Williams working in a more edg contemporary idiom, the concerto is overlong for its substance and does not totally cohere. Despite some potent moments, the work lacks the inspiration and polish of the best 20th century violin showpieces.

James Ehnes is one of the finest violinists on the present day concert stage. He recently recorded Williams’ concerto with Denève leading the St. Louis Symphony (of which he is music director). Clearly, they believe in this score and their rendition could scarcely be bettered. Ehnes’ tone soared and caressed. His legato was smooth and he attacked the first movement cadenza with devilish zeal, Ehnes drew every ounce of emotion and intensity from the score. Deneve finely detailed the prominent wind writing and brought out the  strings’ tonal hues.

In response to a standing ovation, Ehnes offered two encores. He dazzled with the bravado and verve in the double stops of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3 in D minor, a modernist take on Bach. In the Andante from Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor, he mixed stylishness, sweetness of sound production and a distinct interpretive personality to winning effect.

The concert’s major event followed intermission and, in every way, it was worth waiting for. French composer Guillaume Connesson is a master instrumental colorist, and his Les trois saisons (The Three Seasons), commissioned by the New World Symphony, received its world premiere Saturday night.

Conceived as a prelude to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Connesson’s 13-minute opus takes its inspiration from the Greek myth of Demeter, the goddess of harvest and the abduction of her daughter Persephone to Hades. Shimmering strings and explosive brass dominate the frantic opening segment “The race to the end of summer.” A reflective motif of great sadness illuminates “A fall in tears,” Connesson’s memorable lyrical outpouring exploiting the full orchestral color palette. Impressionistic glints dominate the cold winter of the concluding “Night of snow.” 

After tips of the hat to Debussy and Ravel, the music becomes more austere and Stravinskian, setting the stage for the Rite. This brilliant score abounds in melodic originality and sonic glamour. It is a superb addition to the symphonic canon, and, perhaps, a minor masterwork. Denève has been a champion of Connesson’s works and drew a glowing, high-voltage performance from the players.

The players’ ensemble cohesion carried over to The Rite of Spring. Denève told the audience that he wanted to end the season with a bang, and he did that and much more. From the full sound of Brandon Sill’s opening bassoon solo, Denève evoked huge variations of color and volume, melding timbres masterfully. The churning rhythms of “Dance of the Young” emerged crisplyand. A folk-tinged languor and lustrous sound embellished “Spring Rounds.” 

A throbbing pulse and primitive percussive whacks characterized “Dance of the Earth.” As so often with Denève, every strand and detail of the instrumental fabric was rendered with clarity. In the introduction to Part II, the aura of darkness felt palpably present. Taut pacing, sharp accents and excitement superbly delineated the spirit behind the notes and gestures of the final “Sacrificial Dance.”

The entire ensemble brought exactness, passion and subtlety to a performance that captured the poetic beauty as well as the full-throttle energy of Stravinsky’s seminal ballet score. Loud applause and cheers greeted this fine conclusion to a rewarding season of music making.

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

Posted in Performances

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Sun May 12, 2024
at 1:00 pm
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