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Tilson Thomas Taking Chances!

Miami Beach (New World Center)
10/11/2014 -  & October 12*, 2014
Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in C – Scherzo à la russe
Arnold Schoenberg: Concerto in D major for cello and orchestra (after Georg Matthias Monn)
George Antheil: A Jazz Symphony

Tamás Varga (cello)
New World Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)
Patricia Birch (choreographer)

(© Rui Diaz)

New World Symphony’s opening was above and beyond what one would expect. Michael Tilson Thomas began the season with works that are not always easy for an audience; he has acknowledged his followers’ maturation. Starting with Stravinsky’s driving Symphony in C the demand to sit up and pay attention hits full force. The romantic era is over and we hear the sound of the modern 20th century. The pulse of the first movement is relieved by the second which begins as an almost pastoral concerto for oboe played with passionate control by Kevin Pearl, before exploring its own edgy urban variations then returning to its peaceful beginning. The last two movements are filled with more melody than one could expect from some great romantics. But all the time the structure feels formal and disciplined.

Before the performance, Tilson Thomas said that he hoped Stravinsky would be proud of the work his orchestra had accomplished. Probably the greatest compliment would be that New World Symphony makes those of us who know this piece only through recording, truly hear it for the first time. It is often recognized that Stravinsky is unsentimental. But this company ensures that it is always thrilling, never tedious.

The Schoenberg cello transcription of the Concerto for harpsichord in D major by Georg Matthias Monn is at best a curiosity. Who knows why Schoenberg chose it. As was often the case, probably because he needed the money; but Michael Tilson Thomas’ decision to program it, must have been the result of his collaboration with cellist Tamás Varga. Listen to the Monn and you can’t help but be charmed and even challenged. Schoenberg’s transcription is pretentious, even strangely mocking of the original’s simple sophistication; worst of all, it’s boring. At the start, you might think you wandered into a performance of H.M.S. Pinafore; the orchestration is so precious, so aware of its own cuteness. Can one really estimate the work of Varga with something so simple minded. Granted, it is great to explore the less familiar, even and maybe especially the light hearted, however; this work is unworthy of this cellist, the orchestra, and especially the audience. That isn’t to say that it was not approached with utter seriousness and intensity. Varga may have the goods, but here, at times he was almost inaudible and out of balance with the orchestra. It is a brash work with an incredible amount of thrillingly executed percussion. A job well done, which simply was not to this listener’s liking.

But this is exactly what makes New World Symphony a treasure to this community. Chances are taken, and if one doesn’t pay off, Michael Tilson Thomas offers plenty of others.

The second half started with Stravinsky’s cheerful Scherzo à la russe alluding perhaps to Schubert’s Marche militaire. Dissonance never sounded as beautiful and as happy as it does with the conductor who tops it off by giving his musicians a stage direction that creates gasps of surprise and amusement.

The capper of this program of 20th century works was A Jazz Symphony by composer George Antheil whose work is rarely heard anymore. Along with the beloved choreographer Patricia Birch, Tilson Thomas created a sort of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue ballet. Naturally Antheil’s piece encourages comparison to other composers of his era and beyond who eagerly played with the fun and sex appeal that jazz elicits. This theatre work explored familiar territory with two sexy female dancers bewitching orchestra members into behaving in ways one probably wouldn’t associate with classical musicians. The humor never distracted from the orchestra’s tremendous dedicated enthusiasm. Had this performance been captured on DVD, I doubt that many would have left without purchasing a copy. Rarely does theatre offer so much fun. The party has begun; may it never end.

Jeff Haller



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