TRANSFIGURED NIGHT FOR NEW WORLD SYMPHONY
By Lawrence Budmen
In 1899 the 24 year old Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) wrote a string sextet - Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Opus 4 - that expanded musical romanticism to the breaking point. Taking the ultra heated passion of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde to another level, Schoenberg penned a swan song for the 19th century and the musical movement that had defined the era. (Schoenberg’s dramatic oratorio Gurrelieder would repeat that elegy in expanded form. The composer would then devote his compositional energies to the creation of atonality – a musical movement that remains controversial to this day.) In 1943 Schoenberg transformed his impassioned opus into a work for string orchestra. The New World Symphony gave an intense performance of this musical landmark under guest conductor Edwin Outwater on September 17 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach.
For sheer beauty and overwhelming emotion, Schoenberg’s masterpiece remains in a class of its own. The music seems to glide on wings of spontaneous inspiration. The glistening string textures give this score its own unique sound world and cultural patina. The New World players’ impressive performance was the highlight of the group’s first concerts of the season. After a week of coaching sessions with the principal players of the Cleveland Orchestra, the musicians of this unique educational orchestral academy were in fine fettle. The beautiful, rich voiced string playing and ruminative inner glow of this performance was truly inspired. Outstanding solo work by first chair violin, viola, and cello players highlighted a superb ensemble performance. The overwhelming emotion and passion of this score – bordering on frenzy – was vividly conveyed.
Verklarte Nacht was definitely conductor Outwater’s best offering of the evening. A familiar figure in South Florida, Outwater was Resident Conductor and Associate Principal Guest Conductor of the Florida Philharmonic. He is presently Resident Conductor (Michael Tilson Thomas’s assistant) with the San Francisco Symphony. In previous local appearances Outwater’s music making has been erratic and uncertain. His orchestral control has been less than commanding. Many of those same problems were evident in this New World concert. Outwater seemed incapable of achieving a genuine pianissimo (except in Verklarte Nacht). Too often his musical approach was loud and heavy handed.
While Outwater is a smoother, more experienced conductor than he was during his youthful South Florida apprenticeship, his tendency to push forceful, over emphatic accents from an orchestra remains less than ingratiating. Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K.546 (in advance of the
250th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2006) needed greater lightness of touch. The music lacked that sprightly, airy quality that defines Mozart. Outwater pushed the string volume to extremes.
The Four Temperaments by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) is a tribute to the Baroque era in theme and variation form. Originally conceived as a ballet score for choreographer Leonid Massine, The Four Temperaments became a cornerstone of the New York City Ballet repertoire of that master balletomane and creative genius George Balanchine. (The Balanchine version has been danced regularly by Edward Villella’s Miami City Ballet.) Hindemith was one of the 20th century’s real musical renaissance men. A brilliant composer, conductor, violist, teacher, and musicologist Hindemith was an inventive creative artist. (If he had devoted himself totally to conducting Hindemith would have been one of the giants of the podium – so eloquent were his interpretations of Brahms and Bruckner. He formed the first period instrument ensemble in the United States – the Yale Consort which predated such famous European Baroque groups as the Academy of Ancient Music and Les Arts Florescence.) The Four Temperaments is a beautifully constructed modern concerto grosso. Its thematic material is eloquent and inspired. A master violist, Hindemith’s writing for the lower strings has a dark resonance and poignance that lingers in the listener’s memory. The solo piano writing is a virtuosic exercise in contrapuntal gymnastics – a thoroughly contemporary take on the Baroque continuo’s supporting role.
The New World musicians played this wonderful score with splendid technique and instrumental mastery. Pianist Ciro Fodere dispatched the rapid fire keyboard writing with bracing momentum. He did not try to sugarcoat Hindemith’s instrumental astringency. The solo violin line was played with searching intensity. Despite the players’ best efforts, Outwater failed to illuminate the score’s neo-Baroque ornamentation. The performance needed a greater variety of dynamics. Much of the time it was loud and forced. String textures lacked transparency. The conductor led the work in episodic fashion rather than illuminating the grand line of Hindemith’s multi-colored variations.
Despite Outwater’s shortcomings the gifted musicians of the New World Symphony (some of whom graced this summer’s Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra at that western Massachusetts cultural mecca) gave a winning demonstration of instrumental dexterity and disciplined ensemble playing. The performance of Schoenberg’s haunting masterpiece brought the concert to another level – a truly Transfigured Night.