New World Symphony Opening Night – Review

I recently attended New World Symphony’s season opening concert.  On the program were Smetana, Schumann, Janáček and a new work by James Lee III.  This concert was also reviewed in the Miami herald, so if you would like a second opinion you can head over there.  This is the first time I have been in New World Symphony’s brand new hall designed by Frank Gehry.  I remember the symphony’s old hall and there are a few noticeable differences to the atmosphere and sound.  The new hall has a much more open quality to it and seats are positioned around a terrace above the orchestra in addition to the standard orchestra seating in front.  The sound seems fairly clear, but I find it lacks the vibrancy of the old hall.  For this concert I was seated in one of the terraces behind the orchestra, right behind the basses and cellos.

Before the actual program began, Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in the Star Spangled Banner, which I found to be superfluous.  Mr. Thomas seems to enjoy beginning pieces without drawing the audience in through poise and focus.  Sometimes this is a very effective way to begin a piece, as with the exciting Smetana, but in the case of the Schumann, maybe a little more silence before the sound of the work begins could be afforded. Mr. Thomas is what I would call a “musician’s conductor” (if there even is such a thing), as his ictus is sharp and clear.  Mr. Thomas led the orchestra through the Smetana with great precision, and I must take my hats off to the violins for playing with fantastic clarity through the very exposed opening passages. When the violas, cellos and basses finally enter with the same material it was a little muddy, but I do believe that my seats were not helping me hear the sections directly in front of me, as their f-holes were all pointed away from me.   Again, I wish the hall had more of a ‘shimmering vibrancy’ that these players deserve.

In the Schumann Piano concerto, the New World Symphony was joined by Javier Perianes.  Mr. Perianes’ pedal control is lovely and his playing is very graceful.  I do agree with The Herald’s review that his playing lacks the muscle one would expect to be needed in a Romantic piano concerto.  Throughout the work, the orchestra sometimes overpowered the piano (especially when the pianist was nestled in the middle range of the instrument) and sometimes it marginally lagged behind the soloist as well.  Throughout the work, the orchestra performed the pianissimo dynamics stunningly, but consistently overpowered the piano in tutti sections.  Mr. Perianes also brought the melodies in the piano texture of the recap of the 1st movement out nicely and the massive swells to forte immediately followed by subito pianos in the 3rd movement were performed magnificently.

The third piece on the program was a new work by James Lee III called Sukkot through Orion’s Nebula.  The piece is overtly religious in both title and elements of the piece.  The work is based off of a mesh of Judeo and Christian mythology about the return of the messiah.  In the Old Testament, the messiah was to return by descending through Orion’s nebula and the piece is a description of this process, ultimately ending in a more joyous version of rapture from revelations.  One cute little insertion of numerology into the music was that Mr. Lee had divided the piece into seven structural sections.  This is references the number of eyes and horns Jesus has in his ‘lamb’ form from Revelations.  The work begins with a massive percussion and horn announcement.  Immediately apparent is that Mr. Lee is a fantastic orchestrator.  A large, heavy brass sound and furious strings are used throughout the opening section which then develops into a slower section with threadlike, atmospherically high violin parts placed over a harmonically whole tone-y bed in the winds and pitched percussion.  The work eventually returns to the large brass and string sounds of the beginning but more energetically transformed.  The piece sounds very “American” (whatever that means to you) and it seemed to have the large fingerprint of John Adams on it.

Finally we had the Janáček Sinfonietta.  New World was joined by members of University of Miami’s Brass department to fill the required needs of the expanded orchestration, and many of the extra players were positioned around the terraces of the hall.  The piece begins with heavy, folksy brass calls, much like the opening of L’Orpheo by Monteverdi, but bigger.  As the section develops, the harmonies created against the timpani become something much more meaningful than the pesante & simple tune that began the work.  In the ‘B’ section of the movement, the strings take over for an extended, playful dance section with some goofy interjections from the trombones.

The 2nd movement starts off with a homophonic string intro that transitions into some beautiful wind solos, all of which were played quite well.  This movement also featured one of the harder French horn solos I’ve heard.  I can imagine the horn player sweating that one a little.  The 3rd movement was also very folksy, and at this point I was starting to wonder what was going on in the piece.  I usually associate Janáček with music a little less obtuse.  To see what I mean, I recommend taking a listen to the first movement of this piece and comparing the harmonic language of the beginning of that movement to the end of the same brass section that I admired earlier.  The later part of this section’s language is what I usually think of when I think ‘Janáček,’ not the very opening.

Overall the performance was very well done.  In the beginning, the over sized brass section was having a little bit of trouble staying together because they were so distended throughout the concert hall, but they adjusted and were spot on together by the end of the piece when the more interesting language of the beginning of the work returned.

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