The New World Symphony's new season opened Saturday with raucous Russian village music, a youthful symphony of Tchaikovsky and Michael Tilson Thomas' personal memories of Igor Stravinsky.
After striding onto the stage of New World Center in Miami Beach, Tilson Thomas, the orchestra's founder and artistic director, led the audience and a brass choir in the traditional season-opener of The Star-Spangled Banner. Then he picked up a microphone and described his encounters with the great Russian composer.
At the age of 11, growing up in Los Angeles, Tilson Thomas first saw Stravinsky conduct. Attending more and more performances, he came to know the composer, participating in rehearsals and gaining an appreciation for a man he described as an elegant and aristocratic product of imperial Russia, with “nothing Soviet about him.”
The concert, entitled “The Russian Musical Soul,” presented two sides of the nation's classical heritage. There were the sweeping melodies of an early symphony of Tchaikovsky, an artist disdained by the country's more nationalistic musicians as a composer in the German tradition, trained amid the Italianate architecture of Russia’s European outpost, St. Petersburg. And from Stravinsky, the composer who helped jolt the long 19th century of music into the 20th century, came two works rooted in Russian village life, earthy and unsentimental, as passed through the sophisticated kaleidoscope of Stravinsky's compositional technique.
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Joining the orchestra for the Stravinsky works was the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, a troupe of Russian singers and dancers in traditional peasant dress, whose members have conducted extensive field research on their country's folk traditions.
They opened with Renard, or The Fox, a rarely heard work composed in 1916, a few years after the trio of ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring) with which Stravinsky made his reputation. The work tells the story of a fox who is outwitted by a rooster and his friends. Scored for a small orchestra that emphasizes winds, brass and percussion, the work keeps the orchestra distinctly in the background to allow the voices to be heard, not that many members of the audience were likely to understand the singers' Russian words.
With their folk-inflected voices, the seven male singers avoided the operatic tones that classically trained singers might have brought to the performance, even if the fast pace and wide range of Stravinsky's score made vocal demands that sometimes seemed to strain their voices to the limit. Under a driving beat set by Tilson Thomas, the orchestra's shrieks and cackles created a manic tone that together with the voices, restored some of the primitive menace and violence to a genre often left to children.
Stravinsky's Les Noces, or The Wedding, tells the story of a Russian village wedding, with the ritual braiding of the bride's hair, the laments of the mothers losing their children, the wedding feast and the arrival of the wedding night. Scored for four pianos and percussion, it often treated the voices as percussion instruments as well, giving the work a manic, rustic energy.
Pulsing, loud and chaotic, the performance portrayed the wonder and fear, the joy and sorrow of the wedding. Particularly effective, however, were the rare moments of quiet intimacy, when the clanking village band sounds came to a halt, such as the choral passage for unaccompanied male voices, which sounded like an Orthodox prayer, and a dialogue between mother and daughter, over a spare piano accompaniment.
Not until the second half did the full orchestra take the stage, performing Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, known as Winter Dreams.
Despite the large number of new members this season — a record 38 of the 87 musicians — the orchestra sounded as polished and assured as ever, retaining the high standards of recent years. The corporate tone remained rich and glowing, with the precision and clarity that allowed each section's contributions to be heard.
If anything was not quite there yet, it was the hyper-emotionalism needed to really put over this youthful symphony. Tilson Thomas could be seen leaning toward the orchestra at many spots, urging from the musicians more bite and emotion, as in the sinewy, ascending melody of the Scherzo, and the performance at times felt too restrained.
In the second movement, oboist Max Blair brought a natural eloquence and great tonal polish to his solo. The horn section gave a precise, stirring and authoritative performance of the theme toward the end, over a rustling bed of strings. Winds played with warm tones in the opening of the last movement. Fugal passages of the fourth movement were clean and sharp.
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