A glittering crowd enjoyed the New World Symphony’s season opener Saturday night as Michael Tilson Thomas presented a program of “rare delights.” Congenial works by towering 20th-century masters Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg drew on music nearly two centuries past, and the evening’s truly forward-looking work was American composer George Antheil’s practically unknown Jazz Symphony.
Stravinsky’s 1940 Symphony in C uses the orchestra in exposed blocks of abruptly shifting soloists and chamber ensembles. Oboist Kevin Pearl’s supple, gracefully neoclassical melodies angularly spun out the Moderato alla breve’s unifying motive into pungent harmonies, but the overaggressive violin sections too often traded volume for precision.
More-polished violins in the Larghetto concertante provided rounded support for impressive solo wind filigrees. The controlled counterpoint between Pearl and trumpet player Ryan Darke was stellar, and the playing of bassoonist Sean Maree and horn players Anthony Delivanis and Chris Jackson emerged as dazzling.
Antiphonal winds and brass against strings added brilliance to the sunny Allegretto, and a driving Largo-Tempo giusto was framed by vintage murky Stravinsky bassoon melodies. A particularly defined low string sound revealed those sections’ great depth.
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Arnold Schoenberg’s 1933 Concerto in D minor for Cello and Orchestra, composed 10 years after his first serial work, draws on Georg Matthias Monn’s 1746 Concerto for Harpsichord. Few could identify Schoenberg as composer of this tonal work, with sophisticated orchestration and twinkling pitched percussion the only clues.
Calling the solo “a suicide mission,” Tilson Thomas recruited Tamás Varga, principal cellist of both the Vienna Philharmonic and Statsoper. In the insanely difficult Allegro moderato, Varga flew through the thick chords, huge register leaps and ridiculous highs. Although initially overpowering, the orchestra extended Varga’s gestures with delicate, kaleidoscopic accompaniment.
The aria-like melody and continuo bass-line of the Andante alla marcia showcased Varga’s sweeter side. Muscular double stops announced the dancing Tempo di minuetto, with Varga’s subtle ornamentation adding an effortless quality to stratospheric passagework. Notable was Varga’s accompaniment to concertmaster Vivek Jayaraman’s brief, poignant solo before the fast, furious close.
Stravinsky’s original jazz band version of the cheery Scherzo à la russe from 1944 pulsed along in a rondo of fragmented syncopation for full, bright brass, a magical piano line colored by repeated notes, and darker mixed-meter repetitions in saxophones, trombones, winds and strings, featuring a star turn from trumpets.
For George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony from 1925, New World became Our Nouveau Monde, with Clyde Scott’s roaring 20s-inspired video jittering across multiple screens. Supported by pianists Yu “Dean” Zhang and Amy Yamamoto, recent Juilliard grad Peter Dugan’s re-imagined stride piano fell perfectly between jazz and classical, despite his over-the-top mannerisms.
Alone, Antheil’s eclectic, one-movement symphony would be difficult to grasp with its mix of highly dissonant, repetitious pounding interspersed with fin-de-cycle waltzes and lighthearted, naughty jazz. However, lighting effects, burlesque costumes and Patricia Birch’s expert choreography combined for a delightfully charming narrative. Erin Moore’s sensational gold dancer gyrated across the stage, seducing four violinists who came to ruin under her thrall, aided by Joseph Brown’s outstanding wa-wa trumpet. Kiva Dawson’s platinum dancer enjoyed a romance with Dugan over his schmaltzy, endearing jazz waltz.
While occasionally the repetitious brass or lyrical pianist Dugan cut through the texture, shifting focus back to the music’s dissonant repetitions and risqué abandon, Antheil's slight work was immeasurably enhanced by its multimedia.
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