By Lawrence Budmen

The New World Symphony’ s Sounds of the Times concert on Saturday at the Lincoln Theater presented two recent scores by contemporary American composers. While one seemed to be a compendium of superficial orchestral effects, the other unveiled a brilliantly conceived symphonic panorama.

The newly expanded version of Michael Gandolfi’s Impressions from the Garden of Cosmic Speculation received its world premiere. The score is a musical portrait of a 30 acre garden in Scotland designed by the American architect Charles Jencks. Such diverse influences as John Adams, Ravel, Stravinsky, Leroy Anderson, and big band music run through Gandolfi’ s piece. Although the composer paints with a colorful orchestral palette, his work rarely rises above the level of glorified film music. 

The Garden of the Senses, the score’s central section, is a mini-suite based on melodies from the English and French Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach. Gandolfi’s treatment of these themes recalls Leopold Stokowski’ s blatant, overstuffed arrangements of Bach’s organ works. Only in the Passpied did Gandolfi opt for something more interesting, a fractured, angular adaptation of the melodic material. 

Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra (a 2002 Philadelphia Orchestra centennial commission) also aims to please but does so with artful ingenuity. While Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra (one of the seminal works of the 20th century) serves as a model, Higdon does not attempt to copy that score’s Hungarian rhythms or pathos. An initial reference to the main theme of Bartok’s finale pays brief homage. 

In the second movement, Higdon’s shimmering string figurations precede a theme of lyrical eloquence worthy of Copland, Barber, or David Diamond. This gifted composer’s orchestral mastery continually surprises the listener. After an energetic workout for the brass section, the concerto’ s third movement concludes with a lyrically charged violin solo. A solo for the usually gruff double bass employs the instrument as a melodic conduit. Luminous sounds of harp and chimes introduce a percussive fourth movement The finale is a fast paced display of orchestral fireworks with an arching chorale melody providing brief contrast. A marvelous cacophony of contrasting timbres brings this astonishing showpiece to its conclusion. 

Guest conductor Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony, led a tightly focused, cogent performance that did full justice to Higdon’s glowing instrumentation. Although the Lincoln’s overly bright acoustics are not ideal for this expansive orchestral canvass, the four principal sections of the New World Symphony each played brilliantly during their turn in the spotlight. Higdon, Spano and the New World players received a standing, cheering ovation.

Copyright Sun-Sentinel


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