By John Fleming
MIAMI BEACH – “You might wonder why those washboards are back there,” Julia Wolfe told the audience, speaking from the stage before the April 26 concert of the New World Symphony, which was about to give the world premiere of her Fountain of Youth with artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the season finale of the orchestral academy he co-founded 31 years ago. There were four family-size washboards – the old-fashioned galvanized metal and wood tools used for doing laundry before washing machines – mounted on stands in the percussion section. They would play an integral role in Wolfe’s 12-minute concert-opener.
The New World program – also including Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5, with soloist Yuja Wang, and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique – will be repeated on May 1 at Carnegie Hall. Members of the orchestra will play a second program of mainly Tilson Thomas compositions on May 2 at Zankel Hall.
In a video, Wolfe said that her new work was inspired by the youthful NWS fellows and their “forever young” 74-year-old maestro. She also made reference to Florida as the promised land of the 16th- century quest by Ponce de León to find the Fountain of Youth. But the music itself, aside from a certain mordant wit and a touch of tango, did not exactly conjure images of idyllic, carefree younger days.
Instead, there was a grinding, industrial quality to much of the score, dominated by relentless scratch tremolos in the strings and, yes, the scraping, crunching rhythms of those washboards, layered amid granitic blocks of orchestral sound that hit you in the chest like a punch. Aptly, written by a co-founder of the alt-classical Bang on a Can collective, Fountain felt like something Bruckner might have turned out if he had grown up listening to Led Zeppelin and the Who.
The much-decorated (Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur “genius” award, etc.) Wolfe has a resume overflowing with exceptional works, and Fountain extends some of her trademark themes. The clever incorporation of washboard – long deployed in ragtime, blues, and folk music – mirrors the influence of Americana in her chamber work on the legend of John Henry, Steel Hammer (2009), and Fire in my mouth, her multimedia oratorio on the turn-of-the-20th-century Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire given its world premiere by the New York Philharmonic in January.
Other contemporary composers have put the washboard to good use, such as Michael Daugherty in the instrumentation of his tuba concerto, Reflections on the Mississippi, and Andrew Norman in his percussion concerto, Switch. The washboard in classical repertoire even includes the Boston Symphony Orchestra using it for a glissando effect in a 1951 performance of Rite of Spring.
Fountain is reminiscent of Wolfe’s Fuel (2007), an apocalyptic meditation on the oil business for string orchestra. Under Tilson Thomas’ guidance, New World mastered the minimalist mode of her new piece, which had a low, rumbling pulse in swarming strings and percussion underlying bright, dissonant brass (trumpet parts are marked as “gritty, raw, sassy” in the score). The impression the music left was playful – or at least focused on “serious fun,” as Wolfe put it in a feature on the NWS website – but also vaguely ominous, like a gathering storm. The waves of orchestral sound were huge, ranging from wild animal cries in the trombones to virtuosic wails by harp and flute to electric bass and rambunctious drumming that wouldn’t be out of place at a rock concert.
The next night Fountain benefited from a second performance, which I took in from a lawn chair in SoundScape Park, where a crowd estimated at more than 2,000 gathered to picnic and enjoy a Wallcast (one of 10 given by NWS this season), in which the concert inside the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center was simulcast in HD on the building’s 7,000-square-foot outside wall. The surround-sound system built into the park infrastructure is amazing, and Wolfe’s hard-driving, surrealistic score came vividly to life when heard in the urban hurly-burly of a Saturday night on South Beach.
In 2019-20, Fountain of Youth will be played by Tilson Thomas’ other orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, as well as the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Dallas orchestras, all co-commissioners of the work along with NWS and Carnegie Hall.
It has been about five years since I heard Wang in a Prokofiev piano concerto – No. 1, with Tilson Thomas in San Francisco – and one change I noticed in her performance with NWS was striking. Of course, it goes without saying that her technique was, if anything, more spectacular and emphatic than ever, bringing a breathtaking fleetness to the complex Fifth Piano Concerto. The difference was that, even as Wang’s fingers flew across the keyboard, there was a new warmth and roundness of tone in her playing, instead of the spiky brittleness that can come with the territory in Prokofiev. She connected beautifully with colleagues in the orchestra in intimate exchanges with trumpet, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and flute.
The second half of the program was occupied by Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique in an account of the great showpiece that epitomized what makes the New World Symphony so special. On the one hand, Tilson Thomas knows this “instrumental drama” (as Berlioz called it) as well as any conductor alive – he has made excellent recordings of it and explored the composer’s place in Romantic culture in one of his “Keeping Score” documentaries with the San Francisco Symphony. On the other hand, there were probably plenty of NWS fellows playing the full work for the first time, and having these talented young musicians learn it under him yielded a rich, freshly discovered experience.
For example, in the pastoral third movement, dialogue between offstage oboe (James Riggs) and English horn (Emily Beare) was sublime, leading into the distant thunder of four timpani. The orchestra roster was supplemented by 16 additional players, alumni of the academy who are now members of orchestras around the country, allowing for the 60 strings and other sonic luxuries called for by Berlioz. As an encore, Tilson Thomas and orchestra offered up Wagner’s heartfelt Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin.
At Carnegie’s main hall, the New World program of Wolfe, Prokofiev, and Berlioz will be live-streamed on medici.tv. The second program at Zankel includes Tilson Thomas’ setting of Carl Sandburg’s Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind in what the conductor-composer has described as a “honky-tonk Ozymandias,” featuring soprano Measha Brueggergosman, a pair of backup singers, a chamber orchestra, and jazz band. Wang will play pieces from the Tilson Thomas songbook, including one that was written for her, the infectious You Come Here Often?
John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Classical Voice North America, Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.