The "punk composer" of his generation, Beethoven garnered that reputation mostly because of public reaction to his early works — they were sinful, even satanic. But difficult as it might be for contemporary audiences to grasp, just about all classical music has, at some point, been judged the work of the cloven-hoofed one. And one of the latest composers to be accused of that was the Russian Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), a New Wave composer of sorts who openly used shock and subversion, but was ultimately interested more in art than aggression.
The New World Symphony, headquartered in Miami Beach, now takes up the mantle of that spirit with its season opener, performing Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. In fact there's plenty of newness overall across NWS's opening weekend program, a festively raucous affair signaling the end of summer and the beginning of high season.
Stravinsky on South Beach makes sense. The composer loved glamour (literally, in the case of his affair with Coco Chanel). He maintained a diverse circle of friends, including Jean Cocteau, the great choreographer George Balanchine, and Pablo Picasso. So it's no coincidence that Stravinsky's works shimmer and dazzle when held to the light by the most energetic of talents — in this case, NWS conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the passionate young musicians for which this symphony has become a magnet.
New World Symphony|Stravinsky
New World Symphony's opening weekend: Friday, October 17, through Sunday, October 19. Lincoln Theatre, 541 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Friday and Saturday's shows begin at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday's begins at 3 p.m. Tickets cost $28 to $79 . 305-673-3331, www.nws.edu
A training orchestra of sorts, NWS has a great advantage in that it consists of erudite but young musicians performing with the easy, fresh brio that many older orchestras find difficult, if not impossible, to create. In large part because of its association with Tilson Thomas, NWS has become one of Miami's true world-class arts organizations.
So of course the musicians can be forgiven for their current giddiness. Fourth-year violin fellow Emilia Mettenbrink radiates pride and excitement upon returning to the orchestra. "You just don't know how great it feels to be back here, back home after the summer," she says. "This is the place where you're surrounded by the best of your peers."
"Everything here is on a higher level, and they're not afraid to challenge us," says second-year cellist Peter Thomas. "As far as guest musicians and conductors, they bring in real bad-asses."
And Tilson Thomas is the reason. As artistic director of the symphony, he ensures the bar is set high. As conductor, he commands respect on a scale reached by perhaps only a dozen others during the past three decades. Not enough of his performances have been recorded for release, but he has nonetheless won eight Grammys. (Indeed two of them are for an album with the San Francisco Symphony, which includes the Firebird and another Stravinsky work, Rite of Spring.)
The NWS keeps hitting the right notes as far as development too. The organization has acquired the land directly north of the Lincoln Theatre on Lincoln Road, and has broken ground on an ambitious project that will vastly expand its campus. Frank Gehry has designed the concert hall rehearsal complex and an adjacent multimedia park, where concerts will be projected onto a gigantic movie screen, both from inside the hall and from remote locations using Internet2 technology.
Because the expansion of the symphony's home has been designed by a deconstructivist architect, it seems appropriate that Stravinsky is something of a deconstructivist composer, who wrote the towering, asymmetrical Firebird Suite in 1919. The "Lullaby" and "Finale" are its highlights, simultaneously earthy and otherworldly. The former introduces a peaceful yet lonely melody from the bassoon, arguably the woodwind with the most wood. Soon the listener is lost in a lush forest after a great rain, or in a 2001: A Space Odyssey capsule — weightless, modern, and timeless.
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The other Stravinsky work in this program, Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, presents myriad changes in meter and unpredictable syncopation, all with Stravinsky's astounding sense of economy — not a single eighth note sounds merely decorative or unessential. Balanchine, who was not only a friend but also a collaborator of Stravinsky's, seized upon it and made it the centerpiece for his famous Jewels ballet.
Yuja Wang, NWS's 22-year-old star pianist, will help the symphony propel this playful Stravinsky barnburner. Wang's hands are technical marvels, allowing her to delve deeper into the emotions of the music. Her talents, matched with the expressive Capriccio, drive this part of the show up to a can't-miss level. She will also be featured this weekend in a program highlighting Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Along with the other Ravel piece, Rapsodie Espagnol, it ought to be pleasant, but those pieces can serve only as aural palate-cleansers on such Stravinsky-charged nights.
Maestro Stravinsky, at the very end of the 1965 film clip in which he conducts the Firebird, eschews an assistant's help off the stage and waves to the adoring audience. He then gives a grand, circular arm motion that seems to say, "Upward!" In this direction is exactly where the New World Symphony's opening weekend promises to transport us.