The combination of romantic repertoire and superstar virtuoso Joshua Bell brought a large audience to the Arsht Center for the New World Symphony’s program Saturday night.
But the concert also marked the return of former New World conducting fellow Teddy Abrams as podium guest. Now music director of the Louisville Orchestra, as well as an active pianist and composer, Abrams also has a continuing local presence as director of the Garden Music Festival at Fairchild Tropical Garden. The performance illustrated both Abrams’ abundant talent and occasional over-the-top interpretive choices.
Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy is a fine example of a 19th-century instrumental showpiece that mixes native melodies with bravura display. A great favorite of Jascha Heifetz, Bruch’s score is most often heard today on classical radio stations’ playlists rather than in live performance. Bruch’s lush orchestration and combination of beguiling melodies and pyrotechnical highjinks make the score a perfect fit for Bell, and he did not disappoint.
Bell’s honeyed tone and extra degree of concentrated intensity brought forth the melodic riches of the initial Adagio cantabile. With Abrams bringing brusque emphasis to the introductory orchestral chords, Bell attacked the dancing rhythms of the second movement with the fluency of a Celtic country fiddler. In the Andante sostenuto, the tonal richness of Bell’s playing (on his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius) and his eloquent phrasing brought depth to the simple melodic material. The double stops of the finale were dashed off with aplomb and the reprise of the opening theme softly communicated, Bell’s intonation clean even in the instrument’s highest register.
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Abrams drew out myriad orchestral details while maintaining a sprightly accompaniment. The back and forth echo between violin and flute in the second movement was one of many instrumental felicities given prominence that often pass unnoticed in less scrupulous readings.
The harp is almost a second solo instrument in this score and Julia Coronelli exquisitely dovetailed Bell’s phrasing, the repeated glissandos well blended in the orchestral texture. Except for one brief trumpet glitch, the New World players responded with full-bodied, sonorous playing, the dark tone of the cellos and violas particularly beautiful. It would be difficult to imagine a better performance of Bruch’s violin confection.
The standing ovation and repeated curtain calls brought Bell back for the familiar Meditation from Massenet’s opera Thaïs. In announcing the encore, Bell noted that he chose the piece to again spotlight Coronelli’s exceptional harp playing. Bell’s passionate conviction brought luster to this frequently played vignette.
The second half was devoted to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, the most frequently played of the composer’s six symphonies. Abrams’ preference for extremes of volume was well served in the Arsht’s spacious acoustics. He avoided exaggeration in the opening movement, the music emerging in a straightforward manner. Alexander Love tackled the difficult horn solo of the Andante cantabile with rounded sonorous tone, splendid control and accuracy. The interruptive fate motif by the brass and rolling timpani really thundered.
Unfortunately, the performance ran off the rails in the third movement waltz with Abrams’ tempos veering from extremely leisurely to very fast, the musical flow incoherent.
Abrams gave the finale plenty of thrust with brisk pacing that avoided the movement’s episodic pitfalls, with outstanding solo work by clarinetist Miles Jaques and bassoonist Evan Epifanio. At the conclusion, however, Abrams allowed the brass to overwhelm the rest of the orchestra, with the strings virtually inaudible. Abrams remains a promising young conductor but clearly needs more seasoning. Interpretively, this Tchaikovsky felt like a work in progress.
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