By Lawrence Budmen

A celebratory spirit pervaded the stage of the Lincoln Theater on Thursday evening as the New World Symphony hosted A Musical Homecoming. Twenty one NWS alumni joined this season’s orchestra in an awesome display of symphonic power. Excerpts from chamber music scores by Mozart and Dvorak preceded an exciting, volatile performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.1 (Titan) under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. 

A warm, aristocratically phrased performance of the Allegro from Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet spotlighted Todd Levy, principal clarinet of the Milwaukee Symphony. Levy’s dark tonal coloration and glittering cascades of scales and flourishes were the instrumental equivalent of bel canto. 

The opening movement of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet featured the richly burnished sound of cellist Mark Votapek (from the Honolulu Symphony). Votapek dominated the performance with his deeply felt, leisurely evocation of a Czech Romanza. Pianist Michael Linville (the New World’s Director of Admissions and Coaching Associate) offered a capable, understated reading of the keyboard role. 

Like his mentor Leonard Bernstein, Tilson Thomas has a special affinity for Mahler’s brand of overheated romanticism. He elicited sounds of enchanting beauty from his expanded ensemble. Rarely has the Alpine mystery of the symphony’s opening been so magically conveyed. Tilson Thomas evoked sweeping vistas of tone from his silky, transparent strings (led by concertmaster Daniel Jordan and cellist Votapek). The conductor’s vivacious treatment of the second movement landler was like musical whipped cream. A spectacular bass solo by Michael Valerio ignited the eerie funeral march of Frere Jacques transformed into a canon in a minor key. Tilson Thomas conjured up the sounds of a rollicking klezmer band. He unleashed the dissonant chaos of the finale’s opening at full force. In the contrasting central episode he captured the softly reflective string tones of Vienesse yearning. Sonorous brass rang out at the climax with eight horns (led by Michelle Perry of the Empire Brass) providing a mighty sound indeed. Tilson Thomas led a stunning traversal of Mahler’s journey from darkness to light.

In response to a standing, cheering ovation Tilson Thomas offered the Hoedown from Rodeo by Aaron Copland, played with classical precision and country-western swagger – pure Americana. 

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