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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Concert Review: Big Wheel Keep On Turnin'

The NJSO opens with Carmina Burana.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The conductor Jacques Lacombe.
Photo by Daniel Cossette © 2014 Canadian Broadcasting Company
Newark, New Jersey became the focal point of high culture on Friday night when the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra opened its 2014 season at Prudential Hall, the gorgeous and unlikely concert venue that has been the ensemble's home since 1997. The occasion was a gala evening with former governors, politicos and a crowd of well-dressed donors, all gathered to hear Jacques Lacombe lead his troops through Carmina Burana, Carl Orff's 1937 song cycle based on medieval Bavarian texts.

The concert opened (as many seasons do) with the Star-Spangled Banner and a special orchestra-and-chorus performance of Happy Birthday for former NJSO board chairman Dr. Victor Parsonnet. (The eminent heart surgeon was celebrating his 90th birthday.) And then it was time for Mr. Lacombe to get down to business.

He did so with McConkey's Ferry, a short tone poem by New Jersey composer George Anthiel.  His work, presented as part of Mr. Lacombe's initiative to focus on composers from the Garden State. McConkey's Ferry is a portrait of General George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River in the American Revolution. It is painted in dark but lively colors and driven by brass and side-drum. It was both absorbing and compelling and an argument for further exploration of this tonal master from the first half of the last century.

Mr. Lacombe followed  Debussy's Nocturnes (1899) a gorgeous work whose requirements (including a female chorus in the last movement) lead to it being left off most symphonic programs. (In fact, this was NJSO's first performance of the work in 30 years.) With three atmospheric movements, Nocturnes is a predecessor to La Mer, experimenting with shifting orchestral colors and forms.

The conductor drew atmospheric playing from his ensemble, creating a dark, enveloping cloak of sound in Nuages ("Clouds"), supported by supple horns and carefully balanced woodwinds. Sprightly, dancing strings and bright energy featured in Fêtes. The mysterious Sirènes with the women of the Westminster Symphonic Choir singing a seductive wordless chorus against a shifting pattern from the orchestra, was both simple and elegant, fading into silence.

The enormous forces required for Carmina Burana (soprano, tenor, baritone, full men's and women's chorus, two pianos, organ, quadruple wind and brass and expanded percussion section) often look squeezed on the stage of older concert halls. At NJPAC, the players of the NJSO had room to work. The vast hall resounded with the thunderous opening bars of "O Fortuna," the chorus that both begins and ends Orff's work. Mr. Lacombe shifted quickly into "Fortune plango vulnera", not giving the audience a chance to breathe (or applaud) and moved forward into the rich tapestry of human folly and vice that is the subject of most of Carmina Burana.

The wheel turned forward into In Spring, the section featuring Old High German texts and a bright orchestration underpinned with Orff's trademark percussion. Baritone Jonathan Beyer sang the "Estuans interius" with seething emotion and "Ego sum abbas" with vigor. Tenor Jean-Francis Monvoisin was less successful with the challenging solo "In lacum coelerum", the portrait of a roasting swan, yelping into the first of three challenging high Ds. However, the performance recovered with "In taberna", Orff's great brute of a drinking song that ends the section of the same title.

The momentum of Carmina Burana can slow in The Court of Love, the penultimate section of this massive work. Soprano Aline Kutan and Mr. Beyer gave soulful, ardent performances, expertly led by Mr. Lacombe who was at ease conducting from memory without the benefit of a score. The final repetition of "O Fortuna" came too soon, performed with exultant, floor-shaking energy. This performance was a reminder to listeners of the power and meaning behind a piece that is too often performed simply for show, and a triumph for the orchestra from New Jersey.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.