By Lawrence Budmen

The music of Philadelphia based composer Jennifer Higdon has been championed by such renowned conductors as Andre Previn, Robert Spano, and Wolfgang Sawallisch. Higdon’s tone poem Blue Cathedral was the compelling opener at Sunday’ s New World Symphony concert. 

Begun as a eulogy for the composer’s brother who died of cancer in 1998, the work evolves into a celebratory affirmation of life. Delicate solos for flute and clarinet are painted in the luminous impressionistic colors of Debussy and Ravel. Ethereal string figurations hint at John Adams’ brand of minimalism while exultant climaxes are proclaimed by glints of brass with Chinese bells and prepared piano in a touch of musical Zen.

Principal guest conductor Alasdair Neale demonstrated his patrician artistry and orchestral mastery in a colorful, lucid reading of Higdon’s marvelous cathedral of sound that faded away into infinity in a touching coda. 

Neale’s robust, clipped phrasing of the introduction to Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat Major promised no ordinary performance and soloist Billy R. Hunter, Jr. did not disappoint. Hunter, a New World alumnus, is Co-Principal Trumpet of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. With a large, rounded tone that never turned harsh, Hunter’ s blazing technique and synthesis of stylish classicism and showmanship recalled Wynton Marsalis and the Empire Brass’ Rolf Smedvig. The audience was mesmerized by his dexterity and speed in articulating Haydn’s ornamental roulades. Fleet, lightly articulated strings and radiant winds supported Hunter’s incendiary performance. 

Tchaikovsky considered Rachmaninoff his artistic successor. It was easy to see why from Neale’s heart on the sleeve performance of Rachmaninoff’ s massive Symphony No.2 in E minor. For all its melodic richness and Russian melancholia, this score also evokes Mahlerian angst and melodrama. 

Despite the Lincoln Theater’s very bright acoustics which can turn harsh when large scale orchestral works are played, this performance really sizzled. From the opening Largo, Neale offered high wire intensity that avoided vulgarity or hysteria. He dispatched the second movement at an unusually fast and exciting clip. The glowing vibrations of sensuous, iridescent strings (with autumnal clarinet interjections) propelled the lyrical ecstasy of the Adagio, the score’s heart and soul. Neale set the Allegro vivace finale aflame. A final burst of gleaming power from the New World brass brought this moody symphonic kaleidoscope to an exciting conclusion. 

Copyright Sun-Sentinel


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