NEW WORLD SYMPHONY CONCLUDES SEASON WITH SIZZLING PROKOFIEV CONCERT

By Lawrence Budmen

Sergei Prokofiev was a composer of dual musical personalities. He was the creator of wildly original, often harmonically discordant music. On the other hand, he wrote many scores that looked back to 19th century Russian musical traditions - music that was clearly acceptable to Soviet cultural authorities.

These two sides of the composer's musical legacy were the focus of the New World Symphony's final concert of the season - "Sergei Prokofiev, Russian Original" - on May 4, 2002 at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach.

Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the few conductors who can illuminate Prokofiev's "Symphony No. 3 in C Minor", Opus 44. Often in performance, this score emerges as a loud, incoherent musical enigma. Tilson Thomas and the New World players approached the music with enthusiasm, but also with subtlety and passion. There were shrieking woodwinds, thumping percussion, howling brass outbursts, but also lush string textures and eloquent chorales in fascinating combinations of flute with bassoon or English horn.

In this performance, the symphony emerged as one of Prokofiev's finest works - far more original and harmonically daring than his frequently played "5th Symphony". In the second movement Andante, Tilson Thomas captured the mesmerizing string and wind combinations that combine a modal Russian Orthodox chant with a barcarolle-like rhythm. In the third movement Scherzo Allegro Agitato, the demonic intensity was overwhelming. Think of Franz Liszt combined with psychedelic harmonic lighting and you have the wild musical brew Prokofiev serves up in this section. Even the occasionally blatant concluding Allegro Moderato had eloquent emotional sweep.

Prokofiev based this 1929 symphony on music from his opera "The Fiery Angel" (which was never produced in his lifetime). All of that opera's elements of anguished love, black magic, and demonic possession are synthesized in this brilliant, cutting edge symphony which remains a challenging work for both performers and audiences today. The composer wrote that the score was "one of my most significant compositions". He was right. All this music needs to join the standard orchestral repertoire are conductors with the flair, intellect and commitment of Tilson Thomas. The orchestral playing was superb. The score's entire colorful palette was clearly delineated.

The Suite from the ballet "Romeo and Juliet" represents Prokofiev's other side. This is music inspired by the 19th century dance dramas of Marius Petipa. Yet Prokofiev brought a sense of 20th century expressionism to this tradition. The harmonies are new. 

Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony did not give an ordinary performance of this repertoire staple. There was terrific rhythmic thrust that captured the balletic sound pictures. The incisive string playing in "Dance of the Knights" was bracing. There was just the right touch of irony in the "Gavotte". The ethereal flute and strings of the "Balcony Scene" were tinged with Debussy-like impressionism. The music that concludes the second act - the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt - had just the right combination of high spirited revelry and terror that makes this scene so musically potent.

This classic ballet score has been best served on recordings by Ricardo Muti, Daniele Gatti and Prokofiev's friend Mark Ermler. Tilson Thomas equaled the achievements of these conductors and then some. There were lush orchestral harmonies and powerful brass climaxes. The conductor conjured up all the music's romantic ardor but also its shattering dramatic impact. There was always a sure theatrical sense. This was clearly dance music in a sizzling performance.

The young French conductor Ludovic Morlot conducted the opening "American Overture", Opus 42. Written by Prokofiev during a train tour of America in 1925, it is a lively, bustling opener filled with brash orchestral effects. While the composer's attempts at jazz sound more British than American, it is a score that merits occasional revival - sort of like Eric Coates' music raised to the level of high art.

Mr. Morlot caught the rhythmic energy and sudden bursts of orchestral color that give the music character. The orchestra rewarded him with brilliant playing. Mr. Marlot has studied with Sir Colin Davis, George Hurst, Sir Charles Mackerras and the legendary John Carewe. He is clearly a conductor with a major career ahead.

Prokofiev's orchestral mastery belies the depth and variety of his music. The New World Symphony offered a fascinating concert - a boffo conclusion to a lively and stimulating season.


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