Tilson Thomas, New World Symphony wrap season with moving, magnificent Mahler

May 06, 2012
By David Fleshler

Michael Tilson Thomas led the New World Symphony in Mahler's Symphony No. 9 Saturday night in Miami Beach.

At the conclusion of the New World Symphony’s magnificent performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony Saturday evening, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas stood facing the orchestra, ignoring the standing ovation from the audience behind him. Gazing down from the podium, he clasped his hands together and raised them several times to the young musicians, as if in tribute to their performance.

It was a great night for the orchestra, as the musicians tackled Mahler’s sprawling, demanding final (completed) symphony at New World Center in Miami Beach. Tilson Thomas gave the musicians several well-deserved solo bows. Despite the large size of the ensemble called for by Mahler’s score, the symphony is full of odd, exposed passages for solo instruments or small combinations—a flute and horn duet, sinister grumblings in bassoon and bass clarinet, a prominent harp part—and all the musicians delivered when the time came, giving a virtuosic, emotionally compelling, intensely focused performance that did justice to the work.

Tilson Thomas is a leading interpreter of Mahler, having won six Grammy awards for recordings of the composer’s works with the San Francisco Symphony. In recent years he has taken to ending his seasons in Miami Beach with a Mahler symphony, last year the Sixth, the previous year the Fifth, and next year it will be the Fourth. This year was a fitting one to perform the Ninth, which had been given its premiere exactly 100 years ago by the Vienna Philharmonic led by Bruno Walter.

In the opening theme of the first movement, the violins avoided the usual heavy, Germanic approach, giving the beginning of the work an unaccustomed lightness and grace. Tilson Thomas husbanded the orchestra’s strength carefully, as if turning a volume control with 200 gradations of sound, and this paid off in  a first-movement climax that came with great richness and power. Just as compelling were the strange, otherworldly passages, in which the music almost seems to stop, and Mahler has the orchestra emit murky, bizarre, grinding and rumbling sounds, from which the music reemerges. There were a few fumbles in the brass, but after the first movement their performance was virtually immaculate.

Tilson Thomas always showed an affinity for the European peasant aspect of Mahler’s musical personality, a side that emerges most obviously in the heavy traditional dance of the second movement. Tilson Thomas made this a weightier statement than do many conductors, not treating it immediately as a caricature. Particularly good were the trombones when they took up the melody, playing it with gusto and a throaty, gleaming vigor.

The third movement was notable for the fine brass playing toward the end, where Mahler’s demonic melody gives way to nobler sounds. Strings joined in for a radiant climax, before the wilder music resumed and the orchestra brought the movement to a hurtling, exciting conclusion.

The final movement opened at a brisk pace that kept the music moving without stinting on its emotional power. Some of the evening’s greatest moments came in this movement, with great, surging passages in the strings, as the violins brought the music to greater and greater heights. The movement almost disintegrates at the end, as the strings become more and more soft and tentative, and the orchestra gave a completely absorbing performance of the symphony’s final moments (marred only by repeated coughing from some audience members).

The performance was sold out, but an even bigger audience listened outside from the adjacent park, spreading blankets and setting up lawn chairs to watch the performance projected on the a wall of the hall. Orchestra officials estimated the al fresco crowd at 1,800. “I think it was the largest turnout we’ve had this year,” said Craig Hall, the orchestra’s vice president for communications.

The Saturday concert and a repeat performance Sunday are the last concerts of the New World Symphony’s season. That means about a third of the orchestra’s musicians, young conservatory graduates who sign up with New World for up to three years, will be leaving for jobs in orchestras and other musical organizations.

At the conclusion of the concert Saturday, Tilson Thomas picked up a microphone and interrupted the applause (“As Isaac Stern once said,” he observed, “Far be it from me to interrupt a standing ovation.”) and asked the departing members to stand. A new group will be welcomed for the orchestra’s 25th anniversary season, which opens Oct. 6 with music of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday at New World Center in Miami Beach. nws.edu, 305.673.3331.

Comments are closed.