Review: New World Symphony Season Closers Memorable, Thrilling

Written By Sebastián Spreng
May 15, 2024 at 11:48 PM

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and Pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet play together in New World Symphony’s May 4 concert. (Photo by Alex Markow/courtesy of the New World Symphony)

Each return of Michael Tilson Thomas to the stage of the New World Symphony (NWS) makes it impossible not to think about the phoenix. MTT is that phoenix, bringing inevitable ovations before the music begins.

As his farewell to the 2023-24 season, he brought together the French repertoire with the Russian, one with which he has a remarkable, even ancestral affinity, thanks to three composers who were also extraordinary orchestrators: Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich.

Predictably, Jean Yves Thibaudet was an exceptional soloist, and Ravel’s” Piano Concerto in G Major” played as a rigorous “divertimento” was also a welcome breeze of fresh air between the two tragedies that began and concluded the evening.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the New World Symphony in his farewell to the 2023-2024 season. (Photo by Alex Markow/courtesy of the New World Symphony)

Thibaudet shined with impeccable technique, giving a masterly lesson in style and honoring his countryman. Since the initial dizzying whip and its boisterous urban and jazzist allusions (fruit of the composer’s American stay in 1928), the Lyonese pianist — who has been playing it since the age of 11 — endowed each phrase with the exact color. Elegant and detailed, balanced and expressive, agile but never hurried, with precision and lyricism simultaneously.

In his hands, the famous Adagio was a delicious nocturnal walk without haste and pause. The orchestra, with immaculate solo contributions, adjusted splendidly in each of the contrasting movements thanks to an MTT in perfect collaboration with the pianist.

As in his latest appearances, MTT accompanied the soloist in the encore in front of a delirious audience; this time,  Poulenc’s “Sonata for Four Hands” put both artists to play, enjoying themselves as carefree, happy children.

For Tchaikovsky and then Shostakovich, MTT took his time. He seemed to revisit each work, slowly unfolding them like a child who returns to his favorite stories, reuniting, delighting, perhaps saying goodbye. Hence, “Romeo and Juliet” arrived as a narrative growing in intensity, overwhelmed by the power of strings and the lacerating sound of the brasses. Indeed, a special reading that showed a deeper Tchaikovsky, without a dent of the spectacular touch it requires, with slightly more poetic edges than traditional versions, bestowing universality to the tragedy of the Bard.

Shostakovich’s last (15th) symphony was presented in the second half of the concert. It is an autobiographical, ambiguous, and cryptic composition that is significant as it is arduous to capture, Shostakovich himself wrote “I don’t even know why the quotations appeared, but they appeared, and I could not avoid them”. Convalescent in a hospital near his sunset, he could be described as a dying man who sees his life as a film parade, hence the allusions to other music and his own.

In that kaleidoscope, it fascinates to discover how the repeated references to  Rossini’s “William Tell” overture are linked with echoes of Strauss’ “Heldenleben,” Mahler’s Fifth, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven’s “Egmont,” Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” and its fourth, fifth and even seventh symphonies.

More imposing is the constant appearance of the fate motif of Wagner’s “Ring des Nibelungen” masterfully melted with “Tristan” until diluted in a Russian melody that is none other than a song by Glinka saying farewell to life. Less macabre, less mocking, less triumphalist than before, but also more pessimistic, each movement mercurially changes in a boast of volatility that requires a conductor to make sudden changes at the helm. A requirement that MTT fulfilled, keeping the tension seamless. The orchestra responded accordingly, and each section had the opportunity to shine, given by Shostakovich’s obsessive egalitarian desire, from the cello to the flute and from the trombone to the celesta.

The strange end of the symphony shows a composer drained of energy as an orchestra slowly extinguished while a solitary flute could recall Fellini’s “8½” boy waving goodbye to the circus of life, and the celesta opening the doors to infinity. Transfigured, MTT seemed to embody the protagonist of the symphony. After the sustained applause, while slowly walking away, his last look was not for the audience but for the orchestra, his greatest work. A moving, unforgettable instant.

A week later, Stéphane Denève closed his first season as a successful successor to MTT with a challenging program aligned with his vision of the institution’s future, including three contemporary works and a scandalous 20th-century classic.

On the night of May 11, from left to right, composer Guillaume Conneson, left, and Stéphane Denève, artistic director of the New World Symphony. (Photo courtesy of the New World Symphony)

Those attending the concert waiting for John Williams’ usual succession of cinematographic melodies were surprised. The legendary composer is a born melodist, a rarity today who seems to turn his back on that gift to demonstrate unusual academic seriousness as a challenge to himself and the audience. The pattern that applies to an amusement like “Just Down West Street… on the left,”  a jovial tribute to Tanglewood that conducting fellow Molly Turner directed with her usual fervor, or the grieving “First Violin Concerto” from 1974 inspired by the sudden death of his wife, Barbara.

Arduous and fiendish, he demands everything from a virtuoso soloist like the marvelous James Ehnes, capable of hypnotizing the audience with his endless battery of resources, to a composition of which both he and Denève are enthusiastic advocates. A piece already half a century that connects with another mourning, that of Alban Berg (“to the memory of an angel,” Marion Gropius), as well as those of Bartok, Barber, and his Hollywood predecessor Erich Korngold, illustrious links of the violinistic tradition of the 20th century.

Williams describes his grief in every violin solo, from the poetic initial bars to the Adagio. The emotional core of the piece, preceded by a fierce cadence, leads to an equally diabolical presto. Kudos to the conductor, orchestra, and distinguished soloist who generously gave two memorable encores: Eugene Ysaÿe’s “Sonata 3,” a work he made his own, and the andante of Bach’s “Second Sonata,” a transcendent finishing touch for a violin tour-de-force night.

Violinist James Ehnes joined Stéphane Denève and the New World Symphony for the May 11 concert. (Photo courtesy of the New World Symphony)

With composer Guillaume Connesson in attendance, the world premiere of “Les trois saisons” commissioned by NWS took place. A colorful 13-minute prelude to “The Rite of Spring” that would follow immediately, based on the myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone (Stravinsky composed his version in a 1934 oratorio). Of exquisite and undeniable French accents (meaning Debussy and Ravel), it anticipates the Stravinsky spring with its gentle evocation of summer, autumn, and winter with a wink of Schubert’s Winterreise.

Thus, the once shocking “Rite” emerged unscathed, luminous, and powerfully atavistic; this musical equivalent of Picasso’s “Guernica” has not lost an iota of fierceness. Nonetheless, the results are somewhat familiar, even cozy, compared to the previous works.

If its first conductor was the venerable Frenchman Pierre Monteux 110 years ago, another Frenchman revived it in the NWS, providing the necessary touch of sensuality and magic. Denève seemed to play with each instrument like an inspired painter with different colors and brushes, giving the right brushstroke and capturing each dance with contagious rhythm and passionate elegance.

That vital transparency led to a spectacular climax with a splendidly polished orchestra at the end of a season that makes wishing for the end of the upcoming summer a soon and needed comeback.

The New World Symphony opens its 2024-25 season on Oct. 5 and 6 featuring Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Michael Tilson Thomas’ Grammy Award-winning “From the Diary of Anne Frank” at New World Center, 500 17th St., Miami Beach. For information and more about the upcoming season, go to is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music, and more. Don’t miss a story at

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