By Lawrence Budmen

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) is an appropriate time to reflect on the legacy of this timeless genius. Too often he has been relegated to the “lightweight” category of drive time programs on classical radio stations. Endless repetitions of a few disarmingly charming works have created an incomplete picture of this great composer’s wide ranging output.

Second only to Mozart as a child prodigy of extraordinary gifts, Mendelssohn may have been the more productive composer in his youthful years. As conductor and musicologist Rob Kapilow has pointed out, Mozart’s teenage works demonstrate his abundant gifts but few of them are really distinguished. By contrast, Mendelssohn’s earliest compositional oeuvre lists such masterpieces as the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the scintillating Octet for Strings and the highly inventive 12 string symphonies. Recent decades have brought the discovery of more early scores of unmistakable value. Perhaps Mendelssohn’s chamber music has been the most overlooked part of his output. These scores find the composer at his most intimate and emotionally expressive. Appropriately the New World Symphony devoted its tribute to Mendelssohn on February 1 (two days before his birth date) to two of his late chamber scores and an early work of remarkable creative facility.

The live, bright acoustics of Miami Beach’s Lincoln Theater are perfect for small scale instrumental combinations. While the hall’s sound can be strident and overpowering for large orchestral showpieces, it provides a welcoming aural perspective for chamber works where transparency and minute instrumental detail can be appreciated. In this environment, Mendelssohn’s instrumental magic could be fully savored.

The Trio No.2 in C minor for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op.66 is one of the composer’s better known efforts in this genre. This work vividly demonstrates the composer’s creative maturity. Thematic complexity and formal invention abound in this intensely romantic score. Of the three performing New World fellows, only pianist Elaine Hou brought properly tempestuous flair to this overtly emotional music. Violinist Katherine Bormann and cellist Hannah Whitehead played with lovely tone and fine precision but seemed too careful, offering soft focus correctness rather than stormy passion.

The rarely heard Quintet No.2 in B-flat Major for Two Violins, Two Violas and Cello, Op.87 dates from 1845, two years before Mendelssohn’s tragically early death. Utilizing an instrumentation pioneered by Mozart, this masterfully crafted confection is a font of endlessly inspired melody and instrumental ingenuity. Bringing this vibrantly inventive opus to life requires performers attuned to the music’s subtle interplay and sudden shifts of mood. The five talented New World players rose to the challenges. Led by the brilliant, scrupulously musical playing of violinist Brian Fox, the quintet gave equal weight to Mendelssohn’s feathery lightness of touch and yearning internal passions. The richly sonorous, intensely probing musicianship of violist Mary-Kathryn Stevens was a joy to hear. Whitehead’s warm cello sound beautifully dovetailed the higher strings. Violinist Derek Powell and violist Yael Kleinman made important ensemble contributions.

The Concerto in D minor for Violin, Piano and String Orchestra is the work of the 14 year old Mendelssohn, already a boldly inventive composer. Written for violinist Eduard Rietz, a French trained member of the Berlin court orchestra, the score was premiered by Rietz and Mendelssohn in May, 1823 at one of the elegant musical soirees at the home of the composer’s family. Long forgotten, the score was rediscovered by the husband-wife team of pianist Eugene List and violinist Carroll Glenn who performed and recorded the piece many times during the 1960’s and 70’s.

This remarkably experimental work blends the format of the Baroque concerto-grosso with the widely contrasting timbres of the two solo instruments. From the very first bars Mendelssohn’s trademark lightness of touch and melodic profusion take center stage. The solo writing is nothing short of ultra virtuosic, the solo piano part a real finger breaker. Here the youthful Mendelssohn emerges as major creative force.

Canadian violinist Corey Cerovsek brought dark firmly focused instrumental sound and a display of dazzling bravura to the formidable solo part. Cerovsek’s dedication and keen insight brought incisive clarity to this wonderful score. Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen produced waves of pianistic razzle dazzle in the complex keyboard writing. A contingent of New World Symphony strings (led with enthusiastic vigor by concertmaster Emilia Mettenbrink) offered vivacious music making, supporting the soloists with stylish élan. To hear Mendelssohn’s remarkable creation so vividly brought to life was the ultimate tribute to a one of a kind genius.

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