Performances at Miami Beach's New World Center, Feb. 3 and 4, 2018.
I had never heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony before I went to Miami last weekend.
Three days on South Beach, part of a Music Critics of North America Association institute, was a chance to meet colleagues I only knew from bylines, and to hear a couple performances in the Frank Gehry–designed New World Center.
An appraisal of the weekend, and particularly of the NWS founder and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, will show up on WBUR’s ARTery. But the two concerts at the New World Center were a taste of what vivid programming means to the Miami community.
Including Beethoven’s Ninth. Of course I had heard the symphonic version before. But I had never heard the Liszt two-piano transcription before, and probably will never hear it again under such compelling circumstances.
The Dranoff 2 Piano Foundation presented Ukrainians Olha Chipak and Oleksiy Kushnir as duo pianists in Sunday afternoon’s concert on the NWS stage. The duo was joined by four outstanding soloists, including two—mezzo Amanda Crider and soprano Sarah Brailey—well known to Boston audiences.
They played and sang Brahms (Hungarian Dances, Liebeslieder Walzer) in the first half, and then launched into the Ninth. For lovers of the symphony (guessing that includes all of everyone ever) this was a chance to hear discrete lines, relish in the fugues, absorb the slow movement, and in general taste every delicious morsel of this score—largely without the sonic colors, and certainly within a smaller dynamic range.
Liszt transcription stands as its own work of genius (look up the written anecdotes about the meeting between composers on the subject). He apparently tried it for one piano—not enough fingers.
There are no cuts, so the two-piano transcription is just as mind-bendingly dense and exhausting as any orchestral performance. (Coupled with four short dances, and a generous selection from the Liebeslieder, this was a marathon afternoon.)
The four vocalists—tenor Brad Diamond and bass James K. Bass joined Brailey and Crider—singing as part of Seraphic Fire, blended beautifully. Brailey has the top-top range, but the beauty in her voice comes in the lower soprano range. Crider sings and performs with sparkle. Diamond had the hardest time of the foursome fitting some of the Brahms into his comfort zone, but shone brightly in the Ninth. Bass was a force.
The centerpiece of the institute’s weekend was the New Works concert by the New World Symphony, on Saturday evening. Three works—none of which would ever show up on any other orchestra’s subscription series—ran straight at the heart of Michael Tilson Thomas’s ideas about training an orchestra.
First, a premiere of his own “Glimpse of the Big Picture”—that is, three short selections from what is MTT’s lifelong artistic memoir; then another premiere, but a play, “The Inherent Sadness of Low-Lying Areas,” by Christopher Wall; finally “Miami in Movements,” a crowd-sourced film montage (Jonathan David Kane) with score by Ted Hearne.
MTT’s work was more of a vanity inclusion at this point in its life. He narrates the opening of “Whitsett Avenue,” from 1963, talking about early piano improvisations. John Wilson then performed a taut work—left-hand to right-hand then both together—accompanied by video treatment of his hands on the keyboard.
“Auction Dream” was just that—a dream involving MTT, at an auction, buying some undisclosed item for way too much money, then discovering its magic. The concluding “Lope”—a musical walk with his dogs—engaged a small ensemble, driven by two pianos, bass guitar and percussion, in an ostinato crescendo. It was propulsive and fun, but not substantial.
Wall’s touching play was notable, but not for its two primary actors—Joel Leffert, the house-bound PTSD sufferer, and June Ballinger, his divorced and gave-up-on-him-long-ago wife. The five NWS musicians who played and performed small roles made this idiomatic book come to life.
“Miami in Movements” was years in the making. Using technology developed at the MIT Media Lab, Kane collected hundreds of hand-held video from Miami residents, lashed it all together, and layered it over Hearne’s score, which also incorporated some of the supplied videos.
The result was a montage snapshot of Miami, with many reflections about its connection to the past, and its environmental future.
Hearne’s score stood out. To be an effective piece in any other setting, it will have to be condensed—at several sections the orchestra just stops playing and the film takes over. But the music was humorous, densely beautiful, and deserves a chance to find other performances apart from this site-specific appearance.