By Lawrence Budmen

The New World Symphony’ s mini festival Schubert, Berg and the Lyricism of Vienna opened on Friday with two rarely heard masterpieces that span two centuries of Central European cultural tradition and innovation. 

Alban Berg was a student and disciple of Arnold Schoenberg but he was not a didactic advocate of that master’s twelve tone system. Berg’s reverence for Brahms, Mahler and Wagner shine through the atonal surface of his Lyric Suite for Strings. 

In 1925 Berg fell in love with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, sister of the writer Franz Werfel (of Song of Bernadette fame). Both the composer and his love were married and wanted to remain with their spouses. In response to this doomed affair, Berg composed a string quartet with numerous encoded messages to his beloved. Later he orchestrated three of the original six movements, adding a new double bass part. 

The Lyric Suite is an expressionistic soundscape of Freudian dreams and anguished passion, a phantasmagoria that encompasses painful nightmares and romantic ecstasy. After an opening Andante amoroso that recalls the lyrical catharsis of the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony without the sentimentality, the score’s second movement might be captioned “Baroque on steroids.” Soft rhythmic cadences seem to dissolve into an emotional upheaval that interrupts the classical discourse. 

Berg weaves the opening theme of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (a tale of doomed lovers) into the concluding Adagio appassionato, an expansive arioso that channels tragedy, heartbreak and resignation. Berg achieves both the simplicity and visionary zeal of Beethoven’ s late string quartets in this early 20th century gem. 

While the acoustics of Miami Beach’s Lincoln Theater can be strident for large scale orchestral works, the aural environment was perfect for Berg’ s precision crafted miniatures. String sonorities glowed with silken richness and clarity. This is music Michael Tilson Thomas was born to conduct He evoked torrents of emotional power and subtle finesse. The entire performance soared with passionate conviction and tempestuous power, a stunning musical voyage.

The death of 31 year old Franz Schubert in 1828 was one of the great tragedies of musical history. Schubert’ s inspired melodies, formal rigor, and ambitious harmonic experimentation were only beginning to blossom at the time of his passing. 

The Mass No.6 in E-flat Major, one of his last works, is a moving requiem for the composer’s accomplishments and tragically untapped potential. Schubert’ s liturgical works are his least performed scores. Yet they contain some of his most grandiose, boldly original writing. 

The mellifluous Viennese sonorities from the winds and French horns that open the Kyrie of Schubert’s Mass inhabit a very different world from Berg’ s tormented dreamscape. An ascending choral melody suggests the divine spark of ethereal, other worldly inspiration. By contrast the Gloria is a cry of joy, interrupted by an ominous middle section with trombone and timpani interjections. Schubert’ s orchestration is remarkable for its era. 

String tremolos introduce the tense choral pronouncements of Sanctus while a noble Mozartean melody for solo vocal quartet provides a songful interlude in the Benedictus. The concluding Agnus Dei suggests the somber classicism of Mozart’s Requiem and the contrapuntal intricacies of Handel’ s oratorios. This highly dramatic music dissolves into an angelic setting of Dona Nobis Pacem which fades to a subdued conclusion. 

The superbly gifted singers of Patrick Dupre Quigley’s Seraphic Fire and members of the stalwart University of Miami Frost Chorale (under departing choral director Jo-Michael Scheibe) excelled in n umerous fugal passages, singing with crisp intonation and vigorous articulation. Beautifully soft vocal contrasts were the highlight of this fine collaboration. Suzanne Hatcher’s dulcet high soprano, Misty Bermudez’s warm, dusky mezzo and Matthew Tresler’s beautifully spun lyric tenor were standouts among a solid solo quartet.

Tilson Thomas drew sensuous choral lyricism and evoked the full blooded thunder and grandeur of Schubert’s heaven storming proclamations. After some initial ensemble lapses, the New World players exhibited precision and the perfect combination of Viennese ardor and fiery monumentality. Tilson Thomas should conduct major choral works more often in South Florida.

Copyright Sun-Sentinel


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