MTT, New World deliver resounding Mahler performance at Arsht Center

Jeremy Denk
South Florida Classical Review

By David Fleshler

The New World Symphony left its nondescript Lincoln Theatre home for the polished wood and gleaming fixtures of the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall Saturday, for a performance that fully justified the grander surroundings.

Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra’s artistic director and one of the world’s leading Mahler specialists, led the orchestra in an intense, resounding performance of the Fifth Symphony. And the idiosyncratic New York pianist Jeremy Denk gave an energetic account of Aaron Copland’s rarely heard Piano Concerto.

The concert opened with the Copland concerto, a 1926 work that Denk learned for this performance at the suggestion of Tilson Thomas. This is not one of those piano concertos that offers long, soaring lines of melody. Copland wrote a percussive, rambunctious piece that draws on jazz, ragtime and harmonic techniques current at the time, but which remains highly accessible to modern listeners.

Denk’s performance was improvisatory, and technically he appeared to have no trouble with the rapid fistfuls of notes Copland requires from the pianist. Despite his serious expression, Denk seemed to be having fun with the music. In the rollicking jazz and ragtime sections he avoided the over-precise playing of the slumming classical pianist and let himself go, giving a clanking, aggressive performance that was bursting with energy.

The rapport between pianist and conductor was evident. Denk integrated his performance to a large degree into the orchestra, allowing the piano seemed to become less a solo instrument than a significant member of the New World Symphony’s percussion section.

Denk has a deep interest in the work of the American composer Charles Ives, and as an encore he gave a vigorous performance of the fourth scherzo from the composer’s Piano Sonata No. 1.

Tilson Thomas, who has recorded a complete Mahler cycle with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted the sprawling Fifth Symphony without a score, showing a mastery of detail that was never fussy but seemed the product of intense concentration on every moment and every note.

Big rousing performances of Mahler symphonies like this one invariably bring audiences to their feet, and this performance was no exception. But as impressive as the orchestra’s full blast sound was, what was equally impressive was its transparency and attention to nuance.

He drew fine playing from the strings, from frenetic runs in the violins to the pianissimo reiterations of the grave themes of the first and second movements. The opening of the second movement was particularly violent in his hands, with brass and percussion blows striking like artillery shells over the turbulent rushing of the strings.

The famous Adagietto came off without the simple-minded bathos with which it is sometimes performed. In Tilson Thomas’s hands, tension was maximized, with transparent string textures and climactic moments of ecstatic release.

The Fifth Symphony is a difficult work to play, with long exposed passages for brass and winds, as well as rapid, high-ranging passages in the strings. Although there were a couple of ragged passages in the brass, the young musicians of the New World met the challenge, with particularly strong playing–once warmed up—from the horn section.