New World Symphony serves up a terrific program of new music

January 15, 2012
By Dorothy Hindman

Soprano Barbara Hannigan performed works of Ligeti and Vivier Saturday night with the New World Symphony.

The New World Symphony’s Sounds of the Times concert Saturday evening proved that new music can be a big draw at a time when most orchestras have whittled their seasonal repertoire to warhorses.  An enthusiastic audience packed the New World Center in Miami Beach for the program of relatively unknown works, all written since 1980.

There’s a lot that’s unique about these contemporary concerts besides the repertoire, not least the Frank Gehry-designed venue and the affordable $15 price. New World programs the highest quality guest soloists and conductors, like Pablo Heras-Casado on Saturday, a fast-rising podium star.  Fresh from conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra a week ago, the 35-year-old Spaniard directs the San Francisco Orchestra next week in a program of Stravinsky, Ravel, Dallapiccola and de Falla.

These New World programs are also laudable for their accessibility: each piece is introduced by video program notes, giving the audience insight into the music directly from the composers and performers themselves.  The success of this was clearest in soprano Barbara Hannigan’s video remarks about György Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre, which humanized Ligeti and got the audience warmed up and laughing before she ever hit the stage.

Mysteries is potentially a confusing work in which Ligeti combines three arias for Gepopo, the Chief of the Secret Police, from his 1977 opera Le Grand Macabre, (a role Hannigan performed with the New York Philharmonic in 2010). In Mysteries, from 1992, these arias become a concerto for coloratura soprano, with the orchestra as Gepopo’s minions and the conductor as the prince.  Gepopo is so paranoid he only speaks in spurts and nonsense, but Hannigan, a Ligeti specialist, brought a semi-staged version that not only clarified the role, but left the audience in stitches.

Donning a black bob wig, leather trench, vinyl dress, fishnet stockings and S&M boots, she topped off a virtuosic and precisely executed vocal performance with broad slapstick humor — at one point knocking Heras-Casado off the podium — that conveyed everything the limited libretto couldn’t.  This was the evening’s clear crowd-pleaser, with three curtain calls for the Canadian soprano.

Hannigan’s rendering of Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child was the other favorite of the evening.  Set for chamber orchestra and soprano and featuring Vivier’s own poetry, the work grows slowly from a single melody into a shimmering central section of slow-moving harmonies for full orchestra before coalescing back into the original theme.

Resplendent in a gray gown, Hannigan conveyed a youthful vulnerability and purity of tone that blended perfectly into a sonic whole with the orchestra.  The mystical language of Vivier’s poetry and the immediacy of the human voice contributed to the enchanting effect of the work, VIvier’s gentle vocal and string techniques charming rather than jarring.

Pablo Heras-Casado

The two instrumental works on the program were as sharply contrasted as the two vocal works.  Opening with George Benjamin’s Palimpsests I and II, Heras-Casado led the New World fellows through a confident, controlled performance.  A palimpsest is a medieval manuscript that has been scraped clean multiple times, leaving faded images of multiple uses that are not quite discernible.  This musical depiction is painted with slow, quiet counterpoint in winds overlaid by incisive brass gestures and curlicues throughout the orchestra, the rigorous harmonic language adding to the indecipherable effect.  Particularly wonderful were the brass players, whose controlled dynamic palette added great dimension to the work.

Magnus Lindberg’s EXPO from 2009 would have been a wonderful opening piece rather than a closer. Written for the New York Philharmonic, EXPO is beautifully crafted, and was well-conducted and -executed, yet its mostly romantic gestures seemed timid in comparison to the other works on the program.  This audience clearly craved more adventure.

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