When the New World Symphony is in top form, the Miami-based orchestral academy can hold its own with nearly any major orchestra.
The ensemble has rarely sounded better than it did Saturday night at the Arsht Center, offering finely textured Beethoven and a sensational performance of a major American symphony under the baton of artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas.
Pinchas Zukerman was the major audience draw for a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major. Now in his late sixties, Zukerman has been playing for nearly half a century. In recent years, his performances have sometimes seemed bland and musically uninvolved, but with Tilson Thomas urging the soloist and the orchestra on, he gave a committed and satisfying reading of the thrice-familiar work.
Unlike that of some of his contemporaries, Zukerman’s technique is still very strong and his singing tone intact. The demands of Beethoven’s violin writing were dispatched with considerable panache and accuracy.
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Tilson Thomas has always been a fine Beethoven conductor, and his perceptive performances have only deepened with age. The opening orchestral tutti was classically proportioned, the melodic lines balanced by weight and incisive articulation. Throughout the performance, Zukerman often played along in the orchestral passages. That extra heft carried over into his playing.
In the first movement, he captured the score’s lyrical essence, flavored with a touch of sinew. Zukerman tore through the cadenza at a brisk clip, adding some fire to the leaps across the fingerboard.
Tilson Thomas’ admirably restrained orchestral introduction to the Larghetto set the stage for Zukerman’s intimate, silken-toned rendition. The final Rondo was an Allegro indeed, fast and bouncy with plenty of bravura in the rapid fire moments.
Still, the evening’s major event was Tilson Thomas’ terrific reading of Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3. Written at the conclusion of World War II in 1946, the symphony is the culmination of Copland’s Americana period. Copland recast the buoyant, optimistic tone and fervor of his ballet scores into a symphonic canvas writ large. This music is in Tilson Thomas’ bloodstream, and he led a supple, dramatic and rousing performance.
The opening string lines, based on repetitive quarter notes, were shaped in long arcs. Tilson Thomas built the big climaxes with a firm hand, the brass sound clarion but never harsh. Throughout the movement, there was beautiful detailing of instrumental strands, especially in the soft concluding pages.
There was a touch of Shostakovich in Tilson Thomas’ pointing of the quirky twists in the boisterous Allegro molto second movement. The contrasting middle section, in the manner of Copland’s dance scores, emerged warmly songful.
Perhaps the symphony’s heart is found in the third movement Andantino, and the eloquent string playing gave full expressive force to Copland’s darker moments. The fast sections had plenty of snap and rhythmic fluidity. Tilson Thomas brought out Copland’s layered textures, the two harps transparent and important flute and bassoon parts given prominence.
Copland’s famous Fanfare for the Common Man rang out triumphantly from the brass to launch the finale with help from a potent percussion battery. Latin-infused rhythms had plenty of energy and orchestral timbres were clear and balanced, the strings coming through even over the full ensemble at the climax. Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky considered Copland’s score a “great American symphony.” When played with the brilliance and fervor of Tilson Thomas and the New World, one can only agree.
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