For an exciting evening in the concert hall, it’s hard to beat a vivid performance of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, known as the “Organ” symphony.
Although held in low esteem by some as a work of empty bombast, the symphony is rich in melody, grand symphonic passages and imaginative use of the orchestra. The New World Symphony gave a sparkling performance of the work Saturday night at New World Center in Miami Beach under guest conductor Stéphane Denève.
Considered one of the world’s leading young conductors, Denève, 43, is chief conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and about to become chief conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic. He had been mentioned as a leading contender to take over the Boston Symphony before the job went to Andris Nelsons, and his recent debut as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic has led to talk that he might succeed Alan Gilbert.
Under Denève’s baton, the bombast in the Saint-Saëns’ was there, empty or not, and no one could accuse Denève of underplaying the climaxes. Yet he never overdid them either, and balances within the orchestra were finely controlled with a corporate tone of great resonance and weight.
The opening surged forward from the soft beginning, then fell back and surged again to a powerful climax. One of the great moments was the opening of the Poco Adagio section of the first movement, with most of the orchestra playing in a hushed tone that allowed the melody in the woodwinds to emerge magically surrounded by a halo of sound.
The composer calls on almost every instrument to play melodic sections, and the New World players delivered with grace and style. Important passages went to the low brass, which accounts for much of the work’s brawny tone, and the New World trombonists delivered with precision and weight.
The organ, skillfully played by New World piano fellow Yu “Dean” Zhang, gave unique heft to the orchestra, from the soft glowing chords underlying the Adagio to the final blasts toward the end, which you could feel resonating in your chest in a manner beyond the power of any home stereo.
Prior to the symphony, the orchestra performed Poulenc’s Suite from The Model Animals, a ballet inspired by the fables of the 17th-century poet Jean de La Fontaine.
For this performance, the orchestra was joined by a narrator. Richard Haylor, a British-born actor who now lives in Miami, stood on a platform to the left of the orchestra and, before each section of the work, read a short story. (Among them were tales of a lion who unwisely agreed to have claws and fangs dulled so he marry a shepherdess, and a rooster who crowed about beating another rooster in battle, only to be carried off by a vulture).
Apart from one jarring moment toward the end where Haylor talked over the orchestra, the narration added to the experience of the music, shedding light on the performance that would follow. It also had the effect of breaking the work into a series of mini-tone poems, each with its own mood, with nothing lost by playing the five sections continuously.
With long streams of melody and tangy late-Romantic harmonies, the work showed off New World’s lush orchestra texture. Denève took a brisk approach to the melodies. The graceful tune of the “Lion in Love” section, for example, came off as a single, fast-paced burst of passion, an approach that was more effective than taking time to luxuriate in it. To the entire work, he brought a sense of theater, with dramatic pauses and sudden sharp dynamic contrasts that made clear this music was telling a story.
The concert opened with Arthur Honegger’s short Summer Pastoral, a picturesque depiction of dawn, with the orchestra led by New World conducting fellow Christian Reif. Vibrant solos by horn and wind instruments appeared to depict the chirping of birds and other awakening creatures, over figures in the strings suggestive of a rising sun.
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