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The New World Pays Tribute to the Old

Palm Beach
Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
12/12/2021 -  & December, 10, 11, 2021 (Miami)
Anna Clyne: Masquerade (*)
George Gershwin: Concerto in F Major for Piano and Orchestra (new edition)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op. 35

Aaron Diehl (piano), Michael Turkell (violin)
The New World Symphony, Marin Alsop, Chad Goodman (*) (conductors)

M. Alsop (© Adriane White)

The New World Symphony, founded in Miami Beach in 1987 by the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas with the financial help of a cruise ship entrepreneur, has been a noteworthy fixture of South Florida’s cultural establishment ever since. As the state’s southeastern corner burgeons as a new center of politics and finance, culture has followed apace. But this unique orchestra, which serves as a practicum for recent top graduates of America’s leading musical institutions, has not lost its place or its step.

Accepting only about two percent of applicants, the New World Symphony boasts season after season of luxurious programming as the young musicians work their way through ambitious repertoire selections led by prominent conductors. This concert, given just an hour’s drive up the coast in West Palm Beach, featured Marin Alsop, longtime leader of the Baltimore Symphony and now chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, principal conductor of the Ravinia Festival, and the only conductor ever to win a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship.

Alsop delegated the concert’s first piece to the talented New World conducting fellow Chad Goodman for a work that received its world premiere under her baton at the BBC Proms Festival in 2013. The short work, Anna Clyne’s five-minute concert overture Masquerade, is a symphonic depiction of popular festivals in historic England, drawing on scenes from seventeenth-century promenades in which all segments of society could participate. Vivid and memorable, due in no small part to its citations of popular dance rhythms of the era, it offers something deeper than much contemporary classical music, which so often sounds like forgettable film soundtracks. Clyne’s robust work could explain why she has been a composer-in-residence at no fewer than six ensembles, including the mighty Symphonies of Chicago and Baltimore, among other impressive projects. Only just past her fortieth birthday, we will probably hear much more from her.

Alsop took the podium for the rest of the concert and delivered a lively reading of a new edition, by the musicologist Timothy D. Freeze, of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F. This concert was billed as the new edition’s U.S. premiere. An answer to critics who found the composer’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) too jazzy, Gershwin accepted the piece on commission by the New York Symphony Orchestra (one of the two ensembles that became the New York Philharmonic in 1928), which wanted what it called a “proper concerto” for the piano. So insistent was the Symphony’s director Walter Damrosch that he contacted Gershwin with the idea the day after Rhapsody’s premiere. Gershwin undertook the task with gusto. “I made up my mind to do a piece of ‘absolute’ music,” he later wrote. He did not abandon American themes, intending the allegro first movement to be “quick and pulsating, representing the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life” at the time. It starts with heavy timpani strokes, evoking the curtain-opening strains of Broadway’s vibrant theaters. Ending in “an orgy of rhythms,” it mixes an enthusiastic Charleston motif with a bluesy nocturnal mood. The blues theme carries into a colorful adagio moving from brass to woodwinds before the final movement progresses to a tumult of frenetic jazz beats.

By all accounts the Concerto in F is a challenging piece and may not have satisfied those who thought Gershwin might be reclaimed for a strictly classical idiom. Nevertheless, Alsop’s firm hand hardly missed a beat. The pianist Aaron Diehl – a Julliard-trained jazz musician – delivered the solo playing with a virtuosity that remained intense through to the very last notes.

Alsop was no less authoritative in a very different genre represented by Rimsky-Korsakov’s symbolist masterpiece Scheherazade. Completed in 1888 and drawn from the lore of the Arabian Nights, it is a tale of feminine survival delivered in a form similar to the tone poems popular in Western Europe in the era of an older Franz Liszt and younger Richard Strauss. Married to a murderous husband who kills each of his wives after the wedding night, Queen Scheherazade beguiles him with a captivating story each night for a thousand and one nights, slowly persuading him to renounce his evil habit. The choreographer Michel Fokine later adopted it as a ballet and inverted the work’s themes of survival, patience, and virtue to a depiction of faithlessness followed by mass murder. In either version, however, the music is compelling in its dissonances and instrumental solos, with the solo violin – masterfully played here by Michael Turkell – representing the title character. The New World Symphony was undaunted by the work’s complexities and delivered a riveting performance.

Paul du Quenoy



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