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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Concert Review: Return to Fun City

Michael Tilson Thomas comes back to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
MTT: Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium.
Photo courtesy the San Francisco Symphony.
The composer, conductor and educator Michael Tilson Thomas returned to Carnegie Hall last night for the first of two concerts that will end his Perspectives series, the year-long residency that started on opening night of this season in October of 2018. These performances feature the New World Symphony, the Miami-based training orchestra that he helped found in 1987. Although its members are transient--graduate students mostly en route to full time orchestra positions in the fullness of time, MTT's players are professional quality. They proved it last night.

The concert opened with the New York premiere of Fountain of Youth by composer Julia Wolfe. Ms. Wolfe, who has received acclaim (and a Pulitzer Prize) for her oratorios retelling the history of the American industrial complex was in pure music mode here. The result was a swirling, hard-charging and occasionally bewildering series of orchestral eddies. They rushed together to flood the ears before slamming into carefully built dams of percussive noise. Inventive and propulsive, this work drew the listener along for the ride. Like most of Ms. Wolfe's output, Fountain of Youth warrants further study.

One of the virtues (or perhaps vices) in the music of Serge Prokofiev is his sense of humor and irony. Even in his most lyric moments there is a faint hint of mocking laughter. The Piano Concerto No. 5, written in 1932, is one of those pieces. In its five movements you are never quite sure how serious the composer's intent actually is. Here the soloist was Yuja Wang, who like Mr. Thomas is a Perspectives artist wrapping up her year-long commitment at Carnegie Hall. Her fingers sparked and glittered as she launched into the difficult first movement, playing the leaping, playful main theme agains texultant figures in the horns and wind and interjections from the snare drum.

These movements are short, from the jerking stutter-step march of the second movement (answered by glissando passages from the keyboard) to the central Toccata, a dazzling reprise of the ideas from the opening movement that lasts just two minutes. Ms. Wang stretched out on the Larghetto, a mournful, hangdog movement. The Vivo started fast but yielded to quiet, reflective lyricism before the work ended in a fusillade of notes. It was followed by an encore penned by Mr. Thomas: the jazzy, stuttering "You Come Here Often?" meant to evoke the clubbing experience in New York before Republican mayors stripped our fair 'burg of its title of "Fun City." Sigh.

"Fun City" is one way to describe Hector Berlioz' ground-breaking Symphonie-fantastique, written as a result of unrequited obsessive affection by the composer for one Harriet Smithson. (Berlioz saw her play Ophelia in Hamlet and wooed her, but alas she spoke no French. They later married, but it didn't last.) The work's five movements center around a recurring theme called an idée-fixe, following the narrator on a downward spiral into isolation and a series of ugly, opium-induced fantasies that demand the power of an entire orchestra.

The student players seemed rather dry and academic in the opening Revéries-Passions, taking this extended sonata form with a mater-of-fact approach that robbed the music of its sense of fun and forward momentum. That finally emerged in the second movement ("Un Bal") with its first hint of onrushing disaster. By the time one is at the central slow movement, there is no need for the composer to hint that something is seriously wrong with his passionate young lovers. The dialogue between two English horns is repeated, with the offstage second horn no longer answering. It is a moment of lonely desolation.

The last two movements are the opium-fueled nightmares that end the work. The New World players charged into the March to the Scaffold, tramping along enthusiastically. For the final Dream of a Sabbath Night, Mr. Thomas pulled out all the stops, blasting through the tuba-led Dies irae and the orgy of phantasmagorical orchestral effects that ends the work. The players were met with enthusiastic reception, enough for the conductor to grant one quick encore. This was the joyful Prelude to Act III of Wagner's Lohengrin. Happily, the horn players showed the fortitude to meet the demands of its fanfares.

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