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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Concert Review: Space Walk

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra explores The Planets.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Astronaut Ed White making the first "space walk" on the Gemini 4 mission, June 3, 1965.
Photo by James McDivitt © 1965  NASA.
The late Michael Tippett ranks as one of the most important British composers of the latter half of the 20th century. Tippett (1905-1998) is remembered for his World War II pacifism (which resulted in a prison term) a series of excellent (if underperformed) operas and the 1941 oratorio A Child of Our Time. Self-taught, his unconventional, thoroughly tonal style looks back to the 18th century and forward to the 21st.

On Friday night, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra did much to resurrect Tippett's reputation as an orchestral composer with a performance of his Fourth Symphony. The Fourth was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1974 and written for the strengths of that famous ensemble. NJSO music director Jacques Lapointe paired the Fourth with Holst's The Planets, (1917) another massive British work that has remained an audience favorite for almost a century.

This was the first concert that this writer had attended at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in well over a decade. The performance was prefaced with a short statement from Mr. Lapointe, who explained the personal significance of this work, a 30-minute single-movement essay on the meaning of life from cradle to grave. The musicians, he explained would be accompanied by taped samples of real human breath, slow, steady and amplified.

The deep, rattling breaths paved the way for vast slabs of sound that alternate between granite density and delicate, silvery filigree. The powerful brass parts (written for the virtuoso Chicago section) was played with gusto by the New Jersey horns. Vast blocks of sound shifted and developed. Themes moved from the brass to delicate strings and wind, supported by mallet percussion and the taped breath, a persistent reminder of mortality. Hearing this powerful, kaleidoscopic score, it is hard to understand why Tippett's four symphonies remain largely ignored.

While Tippett's major works languish in obscurity, Holst's Planets conti. Mr. Lapointe's performance took pains to establish the clear musical links between each of the seven movements, forging these orchestral pieces into a coherent whole. The menacing ostinato of Mars, The Bringer of War served as a perfect launch point to explore Holst's solar system. The conductor achieved an unusual balance among the instruments for Venus with the woodwinds to the fore.

Mercury, with its trumpet voluntaries paved the way for the mighty Beethovenian dance of Jupiter, with robust playing from the cellos and the growled detail of the movement's famous tuba solo. The heavy brass proved their quality with the measured tread of Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age, alternating the slow march with plucked tones from the two harps. Mr. Lapointe summoned glittering, nimble performances from oboe and clarinet for Uranus: The Magician a movement which owes some inspiration to The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas.

Holst ends The Planets with Neptune: The Mystic, a serene slow movement that seems to carry on the mysterious currents of the outer void. Here, the vastly expanded lower woodwinds carry the opening theme, answered by mysterious, hushed utterances from the horns. These cold solar winds eventually meet the human voice, a wordless utterance from an offstage chorus. In this performance, Mr. Lapointe chose to employ members of the American Boy Choir for this bleak utterance. (The part is usually sung by a female chorus.) This change  added to the unsettling nature of the finale. It was a brilliant stroke.

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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.