By John Fleming
MIAMI BEACH – The New World Symphony rarely compromises when it comes to contemporary music. Unlike most American orchestras that tend to mix and match new and old music in an effort to please as many listeners as possible, the Michael Tilson Thomas-directed orchestral academy for young instrumentalists isn’t timid about going all in on programming modern works. That is especially so in a three-concert series called “Sounds of the Times,” a centerpiece of the NWS mission to expand the classical repertoire and give its players a challenge.
This season’s first concert of the series on Dec. 9 paired the East Coast premiere of Steven Mackey’s Mnemosyne’s Pool and Magnus Lindberg’s Joy, conducted by new-music specialist Jeffrey Milarsky at the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center on South Beach. These works amounted to a big swath of daunting music, and the performance was a thrilling display of the high level of virtuosity among the 87 musicians who are on fellowships with the academy.
The program opened with Joy, which is the third part of a triptych (the first two are Kinetics and Marea) that Lindberg composed between 1988 and 1990. The work benefited from his relationship with Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM, an institute where art and technology come together. Exhibit A: the sampled sounds of the destruction of a grand piano — think of the manipulation of eerie, high-pitched tones and piano strings being cut — that were marvelously deployed by pianist John Wilson, a musical mad scientist at an electronic keyboard and synthesizer positioned in the center of the ensemble. Fittingly, a constant presence was the piano playing of Dean Zhang, who added twinkling runs on celesta. A squawking, quicksilver solo by clarinetist Jesse McCandless was deftly realized.
Massive, shifting layers of spectral harmony dominate the sound world of Lindberg, a Finnish contemporary of Esa-Pekka Salonen and Kaija Saariaho. His complex musical textures are perfect for the bright, in-your-face acoustics of New World’s hall. The technical mastery of the score bespeaks a cool brilliance, but it also lives up to the title with beautifully knitted colors that evoke such joyous motifs as children playing or moments of luminous serenity, though the ending is somber, an ominous piano chord.
Joy is heavy lifting. The expert Milarsky, conducting without baton (he used one for the Mackey piece), was a superb guide for the 23 players, all of whom performed almost continuously through the 30-minute piece.
Mackey has a long history with MTT and the New World Symphony. My introduction to his music was in 2000, when the orchestra premiered his Tuck and Roll, billed as the first fully composed concerto for electric guitar and orchestra. Mackey, a onetime rock guitarist turned composer and professor of music at Princeton (where he now directs graduate studies in composition), was the soloist.
As a cultural milepost, Tuck and Roll was a fascinating marriage of classical and rock, along with some salsa picked up by Mackey on visits to Miami when he was working on the piece, and the composer has continued to explore the possibilities of electric guitar in art music. His song cycle Lonely Motel won a 2011 Grammy for a Cedille recording that featured eighth blackbird, librettist/vocalist Rinde Eckert, and the composer on guitar. Still, for all its inventiveness and intelligence, Mackey’s music never struck me as particularly moving – until now.
Mnemosyne’s Pool, performed by 81 players (there was no electric guitar), seems like a tremendous advance for Mackey, not only more classical but also more emotional than his previous works. The title refers to the Greek goddess of memory, and in a note the composer said his intention was to consider “the role of memory in musical creation and reception,” as in the way we perceive the repetition of themes in a performance. For example, he cited the “false” horn entrance in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.
“In this famed passage, the horn enters with a return of the theme before the strings have arrived at the proper harmony,” Mackey wrote. “There is the prankster interpretation which holds that the horn simply enters too early, overzealously looking forward, but I prefer to hear the horn as looking back, as a fleeting memory. The harmonic solecism acts as a cue to tell me that this is not actually happening in the present but is a brief recollection before returning to the present.”
On first listen, it would have been self-defeating to treat Mnemosyne’s Pool as some kind of memory game in which I tried to keep track of themes and how they were repeated. Instead, I was pulled in by the sheer romantic sweep of the five-movement, 38-minute work and the wistful melancholy quality that ran through it.
As Mackey said in pre-performance remarks from the stage, his new work is “somewhere between a symphony and a concerto for orchestra,” featuring an array of solos and ensembles, such as the woozy trombone in the opening “Variations” movement, or the plaintive, lovely bassoon choir in the second movement, “Déjà vu (Medley).” The score calls upon an arsenal of percussion that was rhythmically exciting but also had playful touches, such as dropping a couple of tennis balls on timpani (Mackey is an avid tennis player) to achieve a unique effect.
The third (“Fleeting”) and fourth (“In Memorian A.H.S.”) movements were played without pause, and the contrast between the two was vivid. The glamorous, pop-influenced third movement was wonderfully infectious, its interplay of rapid winds and strings and bursts of Wagnerian brass having the visceral impact of a jet taking off. And then came the fourth, dedicated to the late Arnold H. Snider, father of composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, who is married to Mackey. The movement is a passionate lament, featuring mournful cellos and concluding with a high, piercing flute.
The epic finale (“Echoes”) brought the whole orchestra to bear in returning to themes from earlier movements. Concertmaster Peiming Lin contributed a brisk solo. At the end, the orchestra swelled to a huge sound, then faded away to a long silence before the audience broke into enthusiastic applause.
Mnemosyne’s Pool was co-commissioned by NWS, the Los Angeles Philharmonic (which gave the world premiere in 2015, Gustavo Dudamel conducting), the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under chief conductor and artistic director David Robertson (who also led the work with his U.S. orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony), and the National Symphony Orchestra, which hasn’t yet played it. Mackey said the Australian orchestra plans to release a recording of it and his violin concerto Beautiful Passing with soloist Anthony Marwood.
“Sounds of the Times” continues on Feb. 3, with Tilson Thomas conducting new works, including one of his own compositions. The program also features a short play by Christopher Wall, with NWS fellows performing both musically and theatrically; and a revised version of Project 305’s Miami in Movements, a portrait of the city by composer Ted Hearne and filmmaker Jonathan David Kane, created during a year-long process that included crowd-sourced audio and video submissions by the public. It was premiered in October.
The third program in the series is on March 31, with John Adams conducting his Tromba lontana fanfare plus works by David Lang, Ingram Marshall, Samuel Adams, and Timo Andres.
The Mackey/Lindberg program was performed during Art Basel Miami Beach, America’s largest modern art fair. South Beach was thronged with collectors, connoisseurs, and scene makers that weekend, and art films were screened on the New World Center’s 7,000-square-foot projection wall. You might think there would be strong crossover among the audiences for contemporary visual arts and contemporary music, but the center’s 756-seat hall was far from full for the concert.
John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.