By Lawrence Budmen

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) are often considered musical and philosophical adversaries. Brahms's music is viewed as the epitome of the Austro-German symphonic tradition while Wagner is seen as a bold innovator who took 19th century musical Romanticism to the brink of atonality. Such decisive historical definitions fail to take account of the likenesses and ambiguities in each composer's works. Brahms's scores could disturb audiences as easily as their genial melodies could calm and entertain their listeners. For all his creative originality Wagner had a healthy respect for musical tradition. Beethoven and Weber were his musical paragons. (Wagner opened the Bayreuth Festspielhaus by conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - a statement of Beethoven's artistic supremacy. At the first post Hitler, post World War 2 Bayreuth Festival, Beethoven's final symphony again was the opening event - preceding performances of Wagner's music dramas. This time Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and brotherhood was led by Wilhelm Furtwangler as an act of homage to the artistic principles that Hitler had defiled.) "Viennese Musical Traditions" focused on the artistic continuum (rather than the cultural divide) between Brahms and Wagner in an evening of illuminating music making by the New World Symphony on January 29 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach. 

Last season the British conductor Mark Wigglesworth led the New World players in a searing accounting of the Eighth Symphony by Dimitri Shostakovich. Wigglesworth evoked all the agony and horror of Stalingrad (the decisive battle on the Russian front of the Second World War) in a performance of enormous passion and momentum - the symphonic event of the season! He returned to lead performances of Brahms and Wagner that were artistically daring and musically incisive. Is Wigglesworth the most underrated conductor on the international music scene? His deeply probing, always inquisitive music making produces performances that are the essence of great music making!

Wigglesworth's freshly minted account of Brahms's familiar "Symphony No.1 in C Minor," Opus 68 was a revelation! His spacious phrasing of the opening chords was matched by an acute ear for orchestral balances. For once the lush, sprawling strings were marvelously audible over the incessant timpani and sonorous brass. Indeed Wigglesworth evoked the "Dresden sound" from his wind and brass choirs - that beautifully, balanced mellow resonance that so distinguished the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra's recent Miami concert. Rarely has the Allegro been so disturbing and unsettling. Wigglesworth's brisk tempos made the music sound new and viscerally alive. He pinpointed numerous woodwind details that usually get obscured in less discerning, more generalized performances. In the Andante sostenuto Wigglesworth found the disturbing undercurrents that remain beneath the surface of the movement's glowing romanticism. The famous violin solo was rendered by Daniel Carlson in an elegantly crafted, straightforward manner without undue sentimentality. Karen Birch's glowing, bright toned oboe solo highlighted a vigorous performance of the third movement Un poco allegretto e grazioso. The conductor knowingly emphasized the trio's dark angularity. The great chorale Adagio of the finale sang forth in a gloriously sonorous choir of trombones and horns - eloquently stated and masterfully balanced. The main theme of the Allegro non troppo, ma con brio was spacious yet understated. Brahms's debt to Beethoven was never so clearly delineated. Wigglesworth's taut pacing and eloquent ear for orchestral detail made the movement an exhilarating celebration of musical genius! The sublime restatement of the chorale theme was an appropriate exclamation point to a magnificent performance! The New World players rewarded Wigglesworth with world class playing - a reminder that these players are the crème de la crème of America's major conservatories.

The concert opened with a dramatic, beautifully balanced performance of the Prelude to "Die Meistersinger" - Wagner's serious operatic-comedy. The ambivalence of the music's martial motifs, lieder inflected lyricism, and ultra-complex contrapuntal writing was vividly captured in Wigglesworth's stirring performance. The warm, beautifully expressive brass playing and silky, richly reverberant strings were a treat for the ear. Here was exultant music making of the highest order! No less illuminating was Wigglesworth's revival of the Overture and Venusberg Music from Wagner's 1861 revision of "Tannhauser." This was Wagner's break through opera - the first in which his theories of leitmotifs and elongated musico-dramatic linkage were brought to a coherent, moving artistic conclusion. From Wigglesworth's stately pacing of the opening Pilgrim's Chorus theme to the lush strings' soaring evocation of the grotto of Venus, this performance sizzled with emotional power and instrumental beauty. Concertmaster Ashoka Thiagarajan's soaring; shimmering violin solo was the essence of Wagner's evocation of sensual beauty. In the concluding Venusberg Bacchanale, Wigglesworth emphasized the score's astringent modernity. These wind and brass sounds could well have been conceived in the mid 20th century. The glistening strings in the soft concluding section were Wagner the traditionalist counterbalancing Wagner the revolutionary. Wigglesworth evoked the beauty and disturbing ambiguities of the music's dual personality - a parallel to Wagner's hero Tannhauser. (Wigglesworth is scheduled to conduct Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" at the Welsh National Opera next season. That should be a bona fide event. He is a great Wagner interpreter!)

Mark Wigglesworth produced one of the finest concerts the New World Symphony has ever given. His musically challenging interpretations and the superb orchestral playing he elicited mark him as one our era's finest young conductors. With several American and European orchestras seeking new music directors, Wigglesworth is a maestro that commands attention!

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