By Lawrence Budmen

Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006) was one of the leading figures of the late 20th century European avant garde. Hollywood frequently adapted his music to eerie effect. His Violin Concerto (final revision 1992) is one of his most distinctive works and one of the most strikingly original scores of the last century’s final decade. This work’s technical difficulties have scared away many distinguished soloists. (Among the world’s leading violinists, only Frank Peter Zimmerman has recorded the piece.) The terrifically gifted Christian Tetzlaff is the perfect artist to illuminate this score and he did that and more at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach on October 27 with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony. 

This concerto is the type of piece Bela Bartok would have created if he had lived in the 1990’s. Like Bartok, Ligeti synthesizes the rhythmic and melodic cells of Hungarian folk music with such modernist compositional techniques as microtones, atonality, and dense textures. Yet reverence for Bach and the Baroque is not far away. After a soft opening and an explosive Praeludium, the serene beauty of the second movement Aria – Chorale recalls Bach at his most sublime. 

Tetzlaff, an intellectually brilliant patrician of the violin, unfurled an evenly produced tone up to the instrument’s highest register. The lengthy cadenza of the concluding Appassionato movement was dashed off with appropriately over the top fireworks. Except for this brief section, Tetzlaff brought a restrained sensibility to the score that payed artistic dividends. 

Tilson Thomas made some brief remarks before the performance with musical illustrations by Tetzlaff and the orchestra. He gave the audience some useful musical signposts to help follow and comprehend this complex score. Deeply committed to the work (which was originally scheduled for last season but postponed due to Tilson Thomas’ illness), the conductor drew superb instrumental playing, particularly from the New World’s crack brass and percussion sections. Concertmaster Katherine Bormann produced violin fireworks in the exposed solo passages.

An enthusiastic ovation produced a gem of an encore – a movement from one of the unaccompanied Partitas by Bach which Tetzlaff recently essayed in a stellar recording. Tetzlaff’s aristocratic phrasing and flawless technique brought Bach’s glorious writing to an incandescent glow. He is truly an extraordinary artist.

The program’s second half was devoted to Russian and Finnish orchestral showpieces. The New World’s conducting fellow Steven Jarvi led a fiery performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. Silken, sensuous playing by the superb string section and flaming brass (including a perfectly articulated trombone solo) highlighted a wonderful performance, marked by Jarvi’s perfect sense of ebb and flow. This gifted young conductor stressed the score’s subtle musicality rather than bombast.

Tchaikovsky’s The Voyevoda is not one of the composer’s best works but it does contain some fine, deeply brooding thematic material. If any conductor can make this piece work, it is Tilson Thomas. He elicited a dark eruption from the strings and winds, bringing fervor to every bar. 

Tilson Thomas is a great Sibelius conductor. In a mesmeric performance of the Finnish master’s Symphony No.7 in C Major, Sibelius’ last essay in this genre, Tilson Thomas brought clarity and momentum to the score’s restless spirit. The climactic eloquence was headlong, joyously voiced by gleaming brass and surging strings. 

As an encore in a very generous program, Tilson Thomas conducted a big boned, eloquent version of Sibelius’ Finlandia, perhaps the composer’s signature work. The New World’s lush strings resounded resplendently in a stirring climax to a varied, stimulating evening.

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