The New World Symphony, which describes itself as America’s Orchestral Academy, is a post-conservatory training program co-founded thirty-one years ago by Michael Tilson Thomas. Based in the magnificent and acoustically outstanding Frank Gehry-designed New World Center, NWS also performs in other venues.
In this concert given by NWS fellows, the two pieces by Henry Purcell featured resonant harmonies underlying inventive melodic ornamentation. In the Chacony (chaconne) counterpoint increases in intricacy as a repeating phrase undergoes variations, and in Fantasia upon One Note, a viola constantly drones on C as the other strings figuratively dance around it, ultimately converging. The ensemble – pairs of violins and violas with cello and harpsichord continuo – performed excellently.
Next came a robust reading of Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio, the players well-coordinated, the two string instruments singing out with consistently beautiful tone. John Wilson contributed agile scales, runs and trills, and shapely phrases. The opening Allegro moderato unfolded gracefully, the piano setting a sweet atmosphere, and the Scherzo was energetic, with effective transitions. The heartfelt Andante found the players discoursing intimately, and the lively Finale was rendered delightfully.
Eight Songs for a Mad King featured Kelvin Thomas, brilliant as George III, a role he has been performing for over thirty-five years, including collaborating with Peter Maxwell Davies on a recording in 2015, the year before his death. As called for, some of the musicians stood in huge birdcages, representing the bullfinches that George, who is thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder, tried to teach how to sing, with the percussionist representing the King’s keeper.
Thomas’s portrayal of the deranged monarch, barefoot and dressed in nightshirt and cap, provided a terrifying glimpse of the ravages of mental illness; he ranged across five octaves as he sang and recited texts by Randolph Stow that include quotations from George, the words at times notated lucidly and at others halting or disconnected. The six instrumentalists ably met the many challenges – the flute engaging in a shrill dialogue with the royal, the clarinet contributing jaunty tunes and wailing interjections, and Charlie Rosmarin producing a variety of jarring sounds. Musical styles and tempos change abruptly: the penultimate Song’s allusion to Handel’s Messiah, which George loved, gives way to a foxtrot; and when, in the climactic moment, Thomas snatched Margeaux Maloney’s violin (a prop) and smashed it, the music dissolves into cacophony. In the final number, after declaring “The King is dead”, he was driven from the stage by his keeper pounding a bass drum. The production was very effective, dramatic intensity added to by projections.