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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Concert Review: When Two Fifths Make a Whole

The NJSO plays Beethoven, Beethoven and Beethoven.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Piano man: Marc-Andre Hamelin in rehearsal.
Photo provided by Hemsing Associates.
Sometimes when you look over a chronological listing of an upcoming classical music season, it is common to circle a certain performance and make a note of its date. One such performance took place Sunday afternoon at NJPAC's Prudential Hall, where Jacques Lacombe and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concluded their regular subscription season with a matinee concert focused exclusively on the music of Beethoven. (The orchestra has one more concert planned for next Sunday at NJPAC.)

The Beethoven-a-thon opened with a weighty reading of the Coriolan Overture. Based on a German play that covers the same tragic story as Shakespeare's Coriolanus, this is one of Beethoven's finest dramatic overtures. Mr. Lacombe is a skilled conductor of dramatic works, and he captured the hero's indecision and Beethoven's dark, minor-key development of impending and unavoidable doom.

The conductor was joined by his countryman, virtuoso pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin for the Piano Concerto No. 5, a work which (despite the composer's explicit wishes) bears the nickname "the Emperor." This is an unusual repertory to find Mr. Hamelin, who made his reputation playing impossibly difficult and arcane compositions from the deep recesses of the 19th century repertory. However,  recent recordings and recitals have indicated a move toward the more commonly played standard repertory.

Mr. Hamelin's command of the keyboard was imperious. His right hand drove the relentless, searching rhythm of the first subject forward against Mr. Lacombe's loping accompaniment. His playing was crisp and lucid, combining with the orchestra in the initial thematic statement with a seriousness of purpose undershot with a current of playfulness and vitality that can make a performance of this concerto truly special.  The phrases emerged with a nobility and beauty of form, with Mr. Hamelin providing ornamentation that carried grace, power and emotion.

The short second movement carried the noble weight that is heard in the best Beethoven playing, with the phrases singing softly against hushed winds and brass, It was as if a deep breath gathered to propel the Rondo finale, with Mr. Hamelin and the orchestra trading roles and the pianist providing an orchestra of sounds from his ten fingers. The set of variations climaxed with a last cadenza, with Mr. Hamelin tossing off a flight of fancy before the last, crashing chords.

Crashing chords also mark the beginning of the Symphony No. 5 in c minor, the most famous staccato opening in the orchestral repertory. Mr. Lacombe used this as a launch point to explore the excellent quality of his orchestra: rotund and sweet-toned horns, eloquent oboe and bassoon obbligatos and a string section that drove forward into the storm with a restless, relentless energy. The slow Andante followed, funereal and profound, with the same qualities infusing the slow Scherzo with its mourning trumpets and horns.

Mr. Lacombe ended the movement with soft tapped rhythms on the timpani which yielded to a bright sunburst of major-key sound, one of Beethoven's most abrupt and yet effective transitions. The horns and trumpets burst forth in an optimism that belied all the fear and dread that went before. True, the searching Scherzo theme returned briefly but was quickly shouted down as the jubilation of orchestral players resumed. The whole ended with a final affirmation of both Beethoven, this orchestra and its director. It was a hell of a note to end a successful season on.

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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.