By Lawrence Budmen 

Michael Tilson Thomas has a consummate skill in illuminating a musical score’s inner details. Sonic layers that often sound muddy and indistinct in mundane performances ring with wonderful clarity and bright instrumental colors under Tilson Thomas’ baton, as was the case on Saturday when the New World Symphony’s artistic director led a high voltage program of works by Ravel, Debussy, and Mahler at the Lincoln Theater. 

Ravel’s Valses nobles et Sentimentales is a tribute to the Vienesse waltzes of Schubert, viewed through a misty musical lens. Ravel’s intoxicating make believe ballroom was the bracing antidote to the annual dose of Vienesse New Year’s schmaltz. Summoning luminous sonorities from strings and winds, Tilson Thomas captured the work’s ruminative melancholia and restless, swirling rhythms in perfect proportion. 

The moody, pensive final waltz of Ravel’s set was an ideal prelude to four songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth’s Magic Horn). Gustav Mahler’s settings of poems (by Brentano and Arnim) about war, death, and political persecution are frightening in sheer musical intensity and harmonic boldness. 

Thomas Hampson brought profound insight, baritonal velvet, and charisma to these remarkable vignettes. Now firmly ensconced in the Wagnerian operatic repertoire, Hampson revealed new found richness and depth in the lower register and the ability to put across every textual nuance. The shrieks of winds and brass and relentless percussive volleys conveyed the terror of Mahler’s writing with explosive power under Tilson Thomas’ direction. 

The conductor’s stirring performance of Debussy’s La Mer recalled the brisk, no nonsense manner of Toscanini and George Szell. Yet Debussy’ s impressionistic portrait of the sea was not lacking in French perfume or flights of eloquence. The New World ensemble’s glistening ripples of color and seamless instrumental texture were marvelous. In the concluding Diaologue of the Wind and Sea, the dark undertones of cellos and golden hues of brass erupted with the fury of a tornado. Tilson Thomas skillfully blended clarity and lush orchestral extravagance.

Steven Jarvi, the New World’s conducting fellow and associate conductor at the New York City Opera, directed a magical performance of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, a work that heralded the birth of French musical impressionism. Jarvi’ s expansive orchestral palette and soaring ardor achieved poetic introspection in Debussy’s dark tonal haze, graced by the gleaming purity of Ebonee Thomas’ solo flute and Melissa Chung’s elegantly incisive violin. 

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