By Lawrence Budmen

The New World Symphony's pre-season "Music of the Americas" festival is a welcome exploration of music from North and Latin America and its relationship to a larger cultural panorama. American music takes many forms. Indigenous folk music and elements of popular culture have found their way into symphonic compositions. Some composers have adopted 20th century European cultural developments - neo-classicism and twelve tone music. Still others have openly embraced minimalism with its repetitive beat derived from rock. 

The concert by the New World Symphony String Orchestra on September 14, 2002 at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach illuminated these diverse compositional trends. Music by composers from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and the United States formed the evening's bill of fare. The two North American composers - John Adams and Aaron Jay Kernis - addressed the audience via Internet2, the newest high speed, broad-band DVD quality technology. Their images were projected onto the back wall of the Lincoln Theatre stage.

Adams told his listeners that, unlike Aaron Copland in "Appalachian Spring," he did not use Shaker melodies or folk music in his "Shaker Loops." Nevertheless the concluding section "A Final Shaking" has very strong musical allusions to blue grass fiddle music and country dances. This is a case of a composer using American vernacular elements in spite of himself. "Shaker Loops" is a masterful study in superimposed sound and counterpoint. It is one of Adams's most accessible and charming works. The sheer energy of the opening section "Shaking and Trembling" is overwhelming. The middle movements bring contrasting hymn-like melodies. Written in 1978, the score remains one of the composer's best minimalist statements. Adams asks everything and more from his string players. Much of the work is written in the instruments' upper registers where intonation becomes difficult. The New World musicians played with stunning precision and invigorating sparkle. Conductor Gisele Ben-Dor brought relentless power and rhythmic brilliance to this memorable performance. (Ben-Dor led the New World players in stunning performances of scores by Ginastera and Piazzolla when she substituted for Robert Spano during the 2001-2002 season.) 

Ben-Dor is one of the most gifted conductors on today's concert scene. She is music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra and conductor emerita of the Boston Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. Last season Ben-Dor took over the New World Symphony's "Tango Festival" concert on short notice and produced a high spirited, scintillating evening of music. On this occasion she was even more impressive in a program of highly varied and complex scores. Her command of the orchestra was total. She inspired the musicians to play the music with arching breadth and sweep rather than mere technical competence. Ben-Dor caught the song filled, reverent mood of Aaron Jay Kernis's "Musica Celestis." This 1990 score was performed in memory of the victims of the events of September 11, 2001. This is music of unabashed Samuel Barber style lyricism. It is a work of great simplicity and great beauty. The darkly sonorous playing of the strings and the warmly resonant viola solo were gems in a subtle musical mosaic.

The Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) was one of the most arresting and original musical voices of the 20th century. In a brief nine year compositional career, he created a large output of works. The best of these scores pulsate with a distinctively nationalistic musical style. "Cuauhnahuac" (1931) is a combination of primitive, Aztec influenced percussive energy and lush, Hollywood style sprawling melodies. It is reminiscent of Revueltas's splendid film score "La Noche de Los Mayas." Ben-Dor and her players captured the raw, pounding rhythmic surge that forms the heartbeat of this music, but also soared with balletic charm in the middle section. The double bass solo by Kristen Bruya was played with remarkable clarity and precision.

Ms. Bruya was also part of the quintet of string soloists in "Glosses on Themes of Pablo Casals" by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. The great cellist Pablo Casals was also a composer with a fine melodic gift. Ginastera attempted to weave Casals's simple melodies through a prism of harsh, atonal string textures. Although the work is well constructed with a fine grasp of formal craftsmanship, the musical result is arid and unappealing. This is definitely "academic" music. (The Italian composer Luciano Berio used a similar compositional scheme much more successfully in his "Markings" based on Schubert's sketches for a tenth symphony.) Violinists Alexander Zhuk and Mikylah Myers McTeer, violist Adrienne Sommerville, and cellist Norbert Lewandowski, as well as Ms. Bruya, were standouts in their difficult, crucially exposed solo parts.

The great Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos had a life long fascination with the sounds of the Brazilian choro (street band) and the Baroque fugal counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach. The Prelude and Fugue that form Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9" become an amalgam of three centuries of great works for string orchestra. Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No.3," Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings," and Stravinsky's "Concerto in D" all provide inspiration for a magnificent orchestral tapestry. Gisele Ben-Dor conducted a deeply eloquent performance that captured in equal measure the contrapuntal rigor and the depth and beauty of this all too rarely played masterpiece. The rich, warm, and highly virtuosic string playing set a high standard.

The New World Symphony has again accomplished what it does best. The combination of interesting programming, superb conducting, wonderful playing, and innovative, cutting-edge technology made for an arresting evening. Viva la musica!

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