Scott Yoo conducts music by Shostakovich, Christopher Theofanidis
and Schubert

By Lawrence Budmen

The 15 string quartets of Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) were the vehicle for some of that composer's most deeply personal thoughts. In 1960 Shostakovich visited Dresden where he worked on the score for the film "Five Days and Five Nights." There he also composed his emotionally shattering String Quartet No.8 - a disturbing, inherently autobiographical work. (Some of that work also found its way into the film score.) The composer wrote to his friend Glikman, "When I die, it's hardly likely that someone will write a quartet dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write it myself. One could write on the frontispiece, 'Dedicated to the author of this quartet.'" The violist and conductor Rudolf Barshai had a close relationship with Shostakovich. (Barshai conducted the premiere of the powerful Fourteenth Symphony.) Barshai transcribed the 8th Quartet for chamber orchestra under the composer's supervision. The "Chamber Symphony," Opus 110a (the composer's chosen title) was the centerpiece of an excellent concert by the strings of the New World Symphony on September 19, 2004 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Florida, USA. 

This score represents Shostakovich at his most pessimistic. Themes from earlier works are quoted and transformed. A martial, almost militant subject from the finale of the 5th Symphony becomes elegiac. The vigorous, witty opening theme of the Cello Concerto No.1 dissolves into chaos in the Allegretto movement of the Chamber Symphony. The concluding Largo alludes to Wagner's funeral music for Siegfried in "Gotterdamerung." The music slips in and out of tonality. (For Shostakovich atonality was desolation.) This emotionally overwhelming score received an excellent performance under the baton of guest conductor Scott Yoo. Yoo is founder and music director of Boston's Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra. He studied conducting with Michael Tilson Thomas. The darkly resonant tones of the lower strings in the opening Largo were a prelude to the precise, crisp attack of the violins in the succeeding Allegro molto. Yoo shaped the demonic theme of this movement with feverish, heated intensity. The string players brought tremendous energy and concentration to the apocalyptic visions of the Allegretto. The three shattering chords of the fourth movement Largo had the volcanic power of thunderbolts under Yoo's fervent direction. Yoo drew a searing interpretation of the tragically elegiac final Largo. The superb string playing of the New World musicians and the beautifully articulated solos by the first chair violin, viola, and cello principals contributed to a deeply moving interpretation. The deftly controlled final pianissimo was the inevitable conclusion of a masterful performance! 

The concert opened with "Visions and Miracles," a 1997 work by the American composer Christopher Theofanidis (1967- ). Theofanidis has a golden resume: studies at Yale, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Houston; Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships; awards of the Prix de Rome and the BBC Masterprize; the Pittsburgh Symphony's Composer of the Year for 2005-2006; and teaching positions at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory and New York's Julliard School. His gorgeously impressionistic "Rainbow Body" has been recorded by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Robert Spano. "Visions and Miracles" is an imaginative, elegantly crafted three movement suite. The opening section -"All joy wills eternity" - is an exhilarating, rhythmically enthralling celebration of life. A contrasting hymn like theme brings to mind Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring." The middle movement -"Peace Love Light YOUMEONE" (based on the writings of Timothy Leary) - is a series of ascending scales in soft dynamics - at once calm, eerie, and beautiful. The concluding section - "I add brilliance to the sun" - is a bracing, spiky display of rhythmical complexity. A lyrical second theme is warmly soulful. Theofanidis's string writing is dazzling. (With its high spirited vigor, songful contrasts, and instrumental variety, this piece would make a splendid ballet score.) Yoo and his musicians gave this quintessentially American work a riveting performance. The music making had incendiary energy but never slighted the music's lyrical subtext. Theofanidis was present to acknowledge the enthusiastic audience's standing ovation. He is an imaginative, sensitive, accomplished creative artist! 

Scott Yoo is a first rate conductor. He commanded dynamic playing from the young musicians and imbued each score with idiomatic fervor and a wonderful sense of the music's ebb and flow. The piercing energy with which the players attacked the opening Allegro of Gustav Mahler's orchestral transcription of Schubert's "String Quartet in D Minor," D.810 ("Death and the Maiden") was a tribute to Yoo's brilliant direction. The entire Allegro had an almost joyous, edgy propulsion that was wonderful - reinvigorating familiar music. Yoo's slower tempo for the coda made the drama all the more intense. He handled the theme and variations of the Andante con motto with a masterful sense of the score's heavenly variety and endless inspiration. The music flowed forth with a sense of inevitability and eloquence. The Scherzo: Allegro molto was tensely phrased - an almost pensive energy beneath the heartbeat of the notes. By contrast the Trio had glowing warmth and Viennese lilt. An invigorating rendition of the Presto finale capped an insightful performance. Mahler's transcription is a marvelously effective work when performed with such sensitivity! 

The New World Symphony is a training ensemble composed of the cream de la crème of conservatory graduates from around the globe. The musicians join the orchestra on two year fellowships. Each season approximately 1,000 applicants are auditioned for 35 openings. The orchestra's 2004-2005 season promises to be memorable. Artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas will be concentrating on Russian music - beginning with an Opening Night gala program of works by Glinka, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich (with pianist Daria Rabotkina) on October 9. In March he directs a program of "New Music from Russia" with scores by Alfred Schnittke, Viktor Kissine, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Valentine Silvestrov with piano dynamo Vladimir Feltsman and violinist Alexander Barantschik. In early April bravura violinist Leila Josefowicz (who was so impressive in John Adams's "Violin Concerto" last season) joins Tilson Thomas for an all Tchaikovsky program. Tilson Thomas also directs his own bassoon concerto "Urban Legend" and "Drala" by American composer Peter Lieberson. Principal Guest Conductor Alasdair Neale leads John Adams's "Harmonielehre" (May 7 and 9, 2005). On January 7 and 8, 2005 James Conlon conducts "Recovering a Musical Heritage" - a concert devoted to composers whose lives were destroyed or uprooted by the Holocaust (Martinu, Schulhoff, Ullmann, and Zemlinsky). Other guest conductors include Hans Graf, Baroque specialist Emmanuelle Haim (a Handel-Rameau program with rising coloratura soprano Laura Claycomb), Peter Oundjian, Mark Wigglesworth, Carlos Kalmar, and Paavo Jarvi (who leads Nielsen's enigmatic Sixth Symphony). A "Sounds of the Times" series features Stefan Asbury (who led the Tanglewood Music Center's production of Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" this past summer) conducting works by Robert Gerhard, Mark Anthony Turnage, Luciano Berio, and Schoenberg on December 4 and "A Night in New Vienna" with the inimitable H.K. Gruber directing his own "Aerial" and scores by Friedrich Cerha, Johannes Staud, and Kurt Schwertsik on January 22, 2005. Soloists include violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist Antonio Bohorquez, pianists Piotr Anderszewski, Garrick Ohlsson, and Jonathan Biss, and soprano Marina Shaguch. The New World Symphony is a unique musical resource! A rich season of music making lies ahead!

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