In its Chicago debut, Tilson Thomas’s Miami Beach ensemble finds New Worlds to conquer

Sun Oct 20, 2013 at 1:19 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony in its Chicago debut Saturday night at the Harris Theater.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony in its Chicago debut Saturday night at the Harris Theater.

Founded by Michael Tilson Thomas, the New World Symphony for the past 26 years has provided practical postgraduate education and career opportunities for musicians seeking positions in symphony orchestras.

Billing itself as “America’s orchestra academy,” the New World has sent thousands of young musicians out into the world and has a track record of grooming some of the finest players in the business, many of whom now ply their trade in top orchestras. In the Chicago Symphony Orchestra alone, NWS alums include timpanist David Herbert, cellist Brant Taylor, principal trumpet Chris Martin and principal oboe Eugene Izotov. (Off this week from the CSO, Izotov was in the house Saturday to cheer on his old ensemble.)

Located in Miami Beach, the ensemble now boasts a home concert venue worthy of its quality, the stunning yet intimate New World Center in Miami Beach, designed by Frank Gehry.

In addition to their primary educational mission, the New World also offers music-making on a consistently high level, as was made apparent Saturday night when Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony made their Chicago debut with a bracing Italian-themed program of 20th-century music at the Harris Theater.

Intelligently chosen, very well played and, for the most part, successfully presented, Saturday’s program—which was performed in its Miami Beach home on Thursday–offered a fine exemplar of the outstanding work Tilson Thomas has done with this organization over the past quarter-century. The conductor provided his own informed yet informal, user-friendly introduction Saturday.

Luciano Berio’s Violin Duets offered a neat microcosm of the orchestra’s tutelary mission.  This set of short works for two violins was tackled by nine pairs of violinists with each duo joining a New World member with a teenage student from the Music Institute of Chicago.

Even with his reputation for thorny if playful modernism, Berio’s Duets offer some of the Italian composer’s most charming and intimate music. Considering the limited rehearsal time, the nine mixed duos played with admirable cohesion, bringing out the waltzing siciliano and ars antiche feel with the wistful nostalgia alternating with flashes of bristling microtonality. Tilson Thomas led the tenth section for all eighteen players, which rounded things off in fiery and extroverted fashion.

Like many mid-20th century European composers Niccolo Castiglioni’s musical style evolved from a barbed-wire serialism to a more accessible idiom. Castiglioni’s Inverno In-ver (Winter in-truth), written in 1973, hails from his latter period.

Castiglioni’s scoring offers a kind of shimmering angularity. There are quick backward glances at Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky but much of the music’s crystalline timbres—high sonorities, tinkling percussion, and treble-end piano—seem to reflect the snow, ice and cold of the winter season. Inverno In-ver goes on at least ten minutes too long but is a striking and compelling work. Perhaps Riccardo Muti can add Castiglioni to a future CSO program of more neglected 20th-century Italian composers.

The performance was accompanied by a heavily-hyped visual installation by artist Netia Jones “in creative collaboration with Michael Tilson Thomas,” as the program noted. Many concertgoers seem to find these simultaneous video projection events unnecessary and distracting, even serving to undermining the music.

Jones’ visuals, however, were quite skillfully done and more effective than most of these mixed-media confections. Images played on three irregularly arranged sets of tiles above and on either side of the stage. The projections offered black-and-white video images of shattering glass, winter scenes, snowflakes and running streams that were stark and unsentimental. Well timed to match the music, Jones’ images provided a genuine enhancement to Castiglioni’s score.

That same can’t be said for the stage management element, with MTT gilding the presentation lily by having musicians stand up and sit down like jack-in-the-boxes, and walk around on the stage when they weren’t playing, The results were silly and distracting and didn’t do Castiglioni’s music or Jones’ video any favors. Sometimes more is less.

Of all his vast oeuvre did Igor Stravinsky ever write a happier, more ineffably charming score then Pulcinella? Stravinsky’s balletic riff on music of Pergolesi and other obscure composers remains a sheer delight, its wry yet affectionate retooling of Neo-Classical models into Stravinsky’s inimitable brand of pointed Neo-classicism.

Presenting the complete ballet (rather than just the suite) afforded the opportunity to hear the vocal sections performed by a trio of singers representing the commedia dell’arte rustics. Matthew Newlin brought a light, graceful tenor to his solos as well as more vehement expression when raging against the perfidy of women.

Singing on the same stage where she appeared six months ago as the abused title heroine in COT’s staging of Maria de Buenos Aires, mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell was a more demure presence Saturday, singing with simplicity and lyric sweetness in the shepherdess’s arias. Bass-baritone Rod Nelman blustered and provided a worthy comic turn in his opportunities.

In music of Stravinsky, Tilson Thomas has no peer. The conductor drew a vital and lively performance, putting across the rhythmic vivacity, wit and scoring ingenuity of this irresistible music. Apart from some unsteady horn moments, the New World members played with fine polish and cohesion.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “In its Chicago debut, Tilson Thomas’s Miami Beach ensemble finds New Worlds to conquer”

  1. Posted Oct 21, 2013 at 12:24 pm by John Peransi

    My husband Jim Espada and I have followed your career since we met in New York in !988.We relocated to South Beach in 1992 to assist in the Andrew Recovery effort after having spent our summer in Ibiza, we both decided a beach resort was more our style, givin the up and coming rush, thinking at the time we’d sacrifice culture, until news of your residence reached us.

    We spent many years, and crossed paths on several occasions, but our careers as owners of Sobe Design, and serving on the boards of The South Beach Aids Project, The Dance Now Ensemble, The Miami Lights Project and countless others needs at the time consumed us, leaving us little or no time to enjoy your work. Every one of your performances has had a lasting impression on our lives, and hope that we can again meet, and share.

    John J Espada-Peransi & Jim Espads-Peransi

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