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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Concert Review: The Belgian Dip

The NJSO opens its regular season.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Jacques Lacombe leading the NJSO.
Photo by Fred Stucker © 2010 The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra spends much of its time off the radar of New York's classical music cognoscenti. Yet, at the start of music director Jacques Lacombe's penultimate season at the helm, this Garden State ensemble is playing at a very high level indeed.

That observation was confirmed by Thursday's first matinee concert of the season at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Prudential Hall, that opulent venue that has served as home base since 1998. The program was unadventurous, even conservative: Rossini's William Tell Overture followed by the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with soloist Gil Shaham. Cesar Franck's lone Symphony, a work that has fallen out of fashion in recent years, completed the triptych.

William Tell is Rossini's final (and perhaps finest) achievement as an opera composer. The four-part overture is always stirring in concert, especially with a rich, chocolatey 'cello sound in the first section, a singing line that is one of this composer's most beautiful melodies. Then, Mr. Lacombe whipped a furious tempest from his strings and brass, reminding the listener that this opera shifts from Swiss pastorale to the last stand of a desperate people against their oppressors.

The ranz de vache is another lovely duet, an excerpt that might be more famous than the gallop which ends the overture. English horn and flute duetted, the sound filling the vast space of Prudential Hall with clarity and dulcet tone. The gallop started suddenly, a dramatic effect that nonetheless caused a small wave of quiet laughter from the audience. Tautly played, this theme blazed forth in the trumpets, banishing thoughts of the Lone Ranger as the orchestra crashed to a pell-mell finish.

The orchestra was then joined by Mr. Shaham, whose violin managed to be both sweet and dry in this ever-popular concerto. This was among the earliest concertos to make the violin's role one of continuous dialogue with the orchestra. Mr. Shaham and Mr. Lacombe played in easy conversation, with the orchestra supporting expertly and the violinist breaking into solo flight in the long cadenza that ends the first movement.

Mr. Shaham's Stradivarius led the way in the slow movement, playing with grace and elegance against supple ensemble support. This led directly into the final rondo with Mr. Shaham again flying free, his violin line skittering and diving like a bird in the air. As he went up for the last thrilling trills, he held the audience rapt, the woodwinds chirping underneath in a chorus of approval. Mr. Lacombe brought the work home in a rapid coda.

The Symphony in D Minor is Franck's largest and best known orchestral composition, one that used to resound regularly on the concert stage. Although it has fallen out of fashion, this work is a happy compromise between the two rival camps in late 19th century music. Franck draws much inspiration from the chromaticism of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (there are even quotes from that opera peppered through the three movements) but adheres to the strict formal construction that marks the music of Brahms.

The first movement alternates between a slow initial idea and a powerful, thrusting second theme. Under Mr. Lacombe, this music was thrilling, with clean-sounding, taut woodwinds and noble horns leading the way. The English horn solo in the second movement recalled the haunted shepherd's pipe from Act III of Tristan. The finale was big-shouldered and brash, led by an upbeat reworking of the main opening theme, itself alternating with one last Wagnerian idea. This performance was an excellent argument for this powerful work, which deserves to resume its place in the symphonic repertory.

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