Rousing Pictures crowns an evening in Miami

United StatesUnited States Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Mussorgsky: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), New World Symphony / Chad Goodman and Juanjo Mena (conductors). Knight Concert Hall, Miami, 11.1.2020. (RDA)

Juanjo Mena (c) Michal Novak

Berlioz – Overture to Benvenuto Cellini
Saint-Saëns – Piano Concerto No.5, ‘Egyptian’
MussorgskyPictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

What a shame that we do not get to hear Hector Berlioz’s opera Benvenuto Cellini more often. But its richly orchestrated overture appears relatively often, to remind us of the composer’s inspired craftsmanship. For the first time in many years, the invaluable New World Symphony — under the baton of the young Chad Goodman — plunged headlong into Berlioz’s quirky rhythmic changes and ever-vanishing melodic snippets.

For an evening of French and Russian music, the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center proved acoustically bright and pleasing. French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was the soloist in Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto, nicknamed ‘Egyptian’ because of its exotic 1896 brushes with what passed in Paris as Near Eastern music.

No one except Saint-Saëns could get by with this strange yet enticingly romantic mélange, which recounted impressions of one of his many trips to Egypt, including frogs, birds, the motor of a seagoing vessel, and a Nubian folk song. But the results are splendid: a plethora of melodic ideas, unusual harmonies, and the massive orchestration for which the composer was unequaled.

With Juanjo Mena as the perfect partner, Thibaudet immersed himself in the luxurious concerto, with nonpareil Gallic elegance and dazzling virtuosity, and eliciting a well-earned ovation. He was brought back for an encore: Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, in which the pianist found enchanting delicacy.

For the second half, Mena offered Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (in Ravel’s 1922 orchestration) accompanied by the New World Symphony’s own commissioned animated film — now humorous, now naïve, now macabre — which reflects how Mussorgsky was inspired by the paintings of his friend, Viktor Hartmann. The NWS strings delivered perfect sweet-tart Slavic moments when called upon, the woodwinds whimsically excelled in ‘Tuilleries and ‘Ballet of the Chicks’, and the brass produced an unabashedly bright tone that was ideal. All along the young-yet-insightful members of the orchestra, guided yet again by the protean Mena, gave a gutsy, rousingly energetic reading that both Mussorgsky (and Ravel) would have loved.

Rafael de Acha

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