On the right day, the New World Symphony can hold its own with the world’s best orchestras. Sunday afternoon proved one of those occasions as the young players gave a thrilling performance of the group’s namesake — Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World). The familiar score concluded “A Dvořák Journey,” an overview of the Czech composer’s orchestral, chamber and vocal music.
While the term “warhorse” is easily attached to the most performed works in the repertoire, vibrant and musically fastidious performances can bring fresh insight to familiar scores and provide a reminder of why they have achieved such popularity. The concert marked the welcome return of Alasdair Neale, the New World’s former principal guest conductor, and his incisive, strongly projected reading wiped the cobwebs off Dvořák’s final large-scale orchestral work.
The performance was filled with imaginative detailing of often obscured instrumental lines and a full range of variegated dynamics from the softest string tones to full blooded fortissimos. Neale attacked the first movement in clear-cut fashion, drawing a rich tonal stream from the unison strings and precise, well blended brass. The two flutes played their solos with pure articulation devoid of excessive vibrato. In the strings’ reprise of the flute theme, Neale introduced slight hesitations to the melodic pulse, one of many imaginative touches.
In the famous Largo. Kevin Pearl’s plangent and beautiful English horn solo spun the melodic curve in one unbroken phrase, conveying the influence of indigenous spirituals and native American songs. The supple string playing, broadly shaped by Neale, gave prominence to basses and cellos, their parts audibly present.
In the Allegro con fuoco finale, the principal theme rang out from the brass with emphatic power while the mellow tones of the clarinet provided contrast in the secondary subject. The strings really dug in, playing with fervor, Neale perfectly calibrating the contrasts of blazing intensity and quiet nostalgia.
The New World Center’s satellite balcony stages were utilized during the concert’s first half for Dvořák’s chamber music and song literature between orchestral offerings. In place of the originally announced third movement of the “American” String Quartet in F Major, a first-rate ensemble traversed the score’s Vivace ma non troppo finale. With strong leadership from violinist Laura Ha, the players registered a crisp reading in bright, clean tones. Violinist Michael McCarthy, violist Madeline Sharp and cellist Grace An filled out the excellent contingent.
Mary-Jane Lee, a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, had recurrent problems with unsteady pitch in “My Song Again Rings to Me with Love” from Dvořák’s Gypsy Melodies, strongly accompanied by pianist Aya Yamamoto. The soprano came into her own with a radiant “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka, Dvořák’s most successful opera. Her lustrous timbre was exquisitely matched by Julia Coronelli’s harp and Neale’s astutely gauged accompaniment.
The afternoon opened with a quick ride through the Slavonic Dance No. 1. A revival of the great tone poem The Midday Witch was particularly welcome. Neale brought agitated energy and dramatic contrasts to the macabre score, the strings’ tense, eerie pianissimos suggesting the witch’s evil. The Scherzo Capriccioso brimmed with high spirits, the ensemble’s sonority voluminous and polished.
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