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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Concert Review: To Seek a Newer World

The New World Symphony plays Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Anne-Sophie Mutter.
Photo by Lillian Birnbaum for DG/UMG
Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall featured a rare New York appearance by the New World Symphony, the Miami-based training orchestra that has given that Florida city fresh musical life. Led by founder and artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas, the NWO played an eclectic program centered around solo violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. The German violinist, celebrating 35 years as an international touring virtuoso is one of this season's Perspectives artists at Carnegie.

The NWO is a unique ensemble, offering conservatory graduates a three-year musical boot camp to turn them into experienced future orchestra members. This concert opened with  three excerpts from the incidental music to Rosamunde, a failed attempt by the composer Franz Peter Schubert to break into the world of theater. Mr. Thomas arranged the work with Overture first, followed by the third and first entr'actes, creating the aural illusion that the whole could conceivably form a coherent "lost" Schubert symphony.

Using a large ensemble, Mr. Thomas presented a convincing argument for this ordering with a burly Overture that featured dark trombones and an unusually full sound in the strings. This was the old-school Romantic approach of his mentor Leonard Bernstein, with bold colors in the strings and dark, potent growls from the trombones and horns. The middle movement was Schubert the songwriter at work, a rich pair of melodies that alternated. The work ended with the Entr'Acte I, a movement in the key of B minor that (because of its unusual) makes some musicologists believe that it is one of the missing movements from the Unfinished Symphony.

Ms. Mutter then took the stage to play a modern work that has become her calling card: the Berg Violin Concerto. Subtitled "To the Memory of an Angel" and written to assuage the composer's grief at the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius (the daughter of Mahler's widow Alma and the architect Walter Gropius) this two-movement concerto stands shoulders-square between the serial approach of Schoenberg and Mahler's own wrought post-Romanticism. Its opening serial row, played by Ms. Mutter and echoed by the orchestra opens a dream-like first movement, that transits from serene slow mourning to fraught Allegro, a musical argument much like the Andante comodo of Mahler's Ninth.

The grief of the opening movement spills into the second, which begins with a frantic, brassy scherzo. This concerto demands that the violinist work within the orchestra as well as against it, and demands bravura string technique without much opportunity for flashy display. Ms. Mutter met these demands with a soulful performance, from the deft navigation of the tone-rows to the string-snaps and left-hand plucks called for by the composer. In the last half of the second movement, a Bach-like chorale dominates the thematic material, bringing this anguished concerto to a serene and resolute close.

The second half of the concert started with the last work of Ms. Mutter's Carnegie residency, the long-delayed New York premiere of Norbert Moret's En rêve. Written in 1988 for the violinist, this is a three-movement journey through the subconscious of this little-known Swiss composer. In the opening Vaporous Light, Mr. Moret employed tone clusters and unusual accompaniments to support the demands and challenges (both musical and technical) of the central solo line. Mr. Moret  created ghostly textures and slow, lyric phrases for his soloist in the central slow movement Dialogue with the Star, meaning a celestial body of his imagination and not Ms. Mutter herself. The finale (Fascinating Blue) was a raucous and welcome jubilation with Ms. Mutter's silvery violin line at the center of the orchestral circle dance.

Mr. Thomas then led his Miami forces in La Mer, Debussy's evocative, ground-breaking and sometimes mysterious "orchestral sketches". The conductor led a bold and forceful performance, keeping his players at mezzo forte when the score called for piano and leading huge, rolling crashes of whole-tone waves that burst over the audience and left the listener invigorated. This bold, splashy approach continued in the central Play of the Waves as the ensembles within the orchestra traded musical lines, carefully balanced and cued by Mr. Thomas. The final Dialogue of the Wind and Sea ended with one last watery crash, fortissimo brass chords that tossed and turned with the force of the ocean itself. The New World players returned for one brisk, energetic encore: the Farandole from Georges Bizet's L'Arlisienne, a joyous close to a strong late-season concert.

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