By Lawrence Budmen

What’s in a name? Sometimes the answer is tremendous musical talent. Roberto Abbado, nephew of Claudio Abbado, is a superbly gifted conductor who has held principal symphonic and opera directorships in Turin and Munich. His operatic work has taken him to the podium of the Vienna Staatsoper, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. He is currently one of the St. Paul (Minnesota) Chamber Orchestra’s Artistic Partners. On December 10, 2005 Abbado mounted the podium of the New World Symphony at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Florida, USA for an evening of fiery music making. 

The New World Symphony is “America’s Orchestral Academy” – the nation’s only full time training orchestra composed of top graduates from major conservatories. In recent seasons the orchestra has also begun a conductor training program. Before Abbado appeared on stage, Steven Jarvi (another famous name), one of the NWS Conducting Fellows, led the ensemble in (K)ein Sommernachtstraum (Not) A Midsummer Night’s Dream) by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). This 1985 work is typical of Schnittke’s response to Soviet cultural authorities’ criticism of his avant garde musical tendencies. The composer turned to Haydnesque classicism and then satirized it. (Schnittke did the same thing in his Mozart a la Haydn, Suite in the Old Style, and even in his astringent Concerto Grosso No.1 for Violin and Orchestra.) 

In (K)ein Sommernachtstraum (composed in 1985) Schnittke creates a graceful Mozartean theme and then sets up a musical burlesque. This fiercely witty music recalls Shostakovich in his most satirical, acerbic vein. Dissonant brasses invert the theme. Suddenly late18th century elegance (always accompanied by a tinkling harpsichord) becomes atonality. The score ends with a reprise of the theme but something has changed. In the last years of Communist rule, this type of parody became a dignified manner of artistic protest.

Schnittke’s ingenious score was given a sizzling performance by Jarvi and the orchestra. I heard Jarvi lead a student ensemble in Stravinsky’s bracing orchestrations of Hugo Wolf lieder this past summer at Tanglewood. His ability to draw magical results from an ad hoc orchestra was impressive. On this occasion he again showed exceptional mastery. Jarvi astutely pointed the seemingly elegant wind interjections and drew bristling salvos from the brass and percussion. In a work that depends on its conductor to pinpoint musical irony, Jarvi again demonstrated exceptional talent! Flutist Ebonee Thomas played her high altitude solos with spectacular breath control, sweetly spun tone, and dizzying command of the most angular phrases.

Roberto Abbado’s sparkling direction of Beethoven’s Symphony No.4 in B-flat Major, Opus 60 brought Toscanini to mind. Here was Italianate warmth combined with whiz bang intensity and awesome orchestral control. The mystery of the introductory Adagio was potently evoked while the sheer rhythmic dive of the Allegro vivace was riveting. The beautiful dialogue between strings and winds was beautifully detailed. Abbado sustained the cantabile line of the second movement Adagio with the grace of a bel canto operatic aria. The music seemed born aloft; Beethoven’s inspiration burned anew. The Allegro ma non troppo finale raced with opera buffa spirit. Abbado had the New World musicians playing with edge of the seat intensity. The horns delivered their daunting third movement solos with clarion precision. The Beethoven Fourth Symphony has been called the gentle interlude between two stormy giants (the Eroica and Fifth Symphonies). Abbado’s performance was a vivid reminder of the unflagging, fierce energy of Beethoven’s music. This Beethoven Fourth never let up steam – a stunning interpretation! 

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Opus 45 was likewise treated to a revelatory performance. Composed in 1940, this work is the composer’s final original score. It is a dark, surprisingly rhythmically angular work. Within its pages the conservative Rachmaninoff (Tchaikovsky’s obvious artistic heir) even makes some polite gestures in the direction of Stravinsky style modernism. Too often performances of this work are awash in overly lush orchestral textures. Abbado led a transparent performance that glowed in bright, lean sonorities. It was like hearing the work with new ears. The opening movement was paced tautly. Abbado’s hard driving intensity was often spellbinding. The saxophone solo was taken at a brisk clip – no mushy orchestral sound here. Abbado treated the Tempo di Valse as an ominous leitmotif rather than a perfumed interlude. The twilight aura of Ravel’s La Valse was very much in Rachmaninoff’s musical air. In less agile performances the finale often emerges as a diffuse musical letdown. Abbado’s head long urgency projected the sheer terror of this music. The composer’s repeated use of the Dies Irae never sounded more foreboding. The orchestra responded to Abbado’s orchestral wizardry with fierce precision, rapid fire attacks, and dynamic playing. 

When a conductor makes standard repertoire works sound new, there is something to cheer about. Roberto Abbado brought artistic refinement, orchestral command, and remarkable musical intellect to two orchestral warhorses. A superb conductor! 

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