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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 23, 2015

Concert Review: The Best of All Possible Worlds

Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the NJSO.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The always well-dressed Jean-Yves Thibaudet.
Photo by Hilary Scott for the Tanglewood Festival © 2015 Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra exists in perpetual shadow of the classical music scene in nearby New York. And yet, those attending the orchestra’s concerts (held at NJPAC in downtown Newark and an ever-rotating series of regional arts centers and theaters in the Garden State) hear strong, snappy playing, bold brass and a gritty work ethic that matches its blue-collar home state.

On Thursday afternoon, music director Jacques Lacombe presented a smart, refreshing program pairing the music of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein, the two most popular American composers of the 20th century. With two selections from each composer’s catalogue, Mr. Lacombe presented a history of the golden age of this country’s musical output, an era where anything seemed possible in the best of all possible worlds.

That last phrase is a quote from Voltaire’s Candide, the inspiration for Bernstein’s blistering 1957 opera of the same name. The failure of Candide on Broadway is one of the strangest events in Bernstein’s career, although one could argue that it joined a luminous list of now-classic operas that bombed on opening night. Here, the bustling, Rossini-esque overture was played with fizz and pop, with Mr. Lacombe balancing the odd instrumental juxtapositions and breakneck tempo changes.

The orchestra was then joined by soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, whose current touring schedule revolves around his new Decca CD featuring Gershwin’s music. Here, the French virtuoso played the solo part in that composer’s Piano Concerto, an ambitious, hybrid work that straddles classical compositional style and jazz. With his fearless technique and fearsome concentration, Mr. Thibaudet soared through the challenging opening movement, playing Gershwin’s hybrid style with lyric ease and a taut sense of rhythm.

The slow movement, with its bluesy inflection put Mr. Thibaudet into the role of a figure from a noir novel, the killer pianist whose dazzling prestidigitation was matched only by the glitter of his sparkling concert shoes. Sparkling is also a good adjective for his playing in the third movement, locking into a tight groove with Mr. Lacombe and fencing playfully with the orchestra.

The second half opened with more Bernstein: the much-loved and much-abused Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Here, the orchestra gleefully took on the roles of the street punks that make up this modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, capturing the youthful exuberance of the score and Bernstein’s generous use of Latin rhythms and exotic orchestral reworkings of songs like “Somewhere”, “Maria” and “Cool.” Mr. Lacombe got real pathos from his players in the last bars, illustrating the tragic denouement of this show even with no singers present.

The concert ended with the Symphonic Pictures from Porgy and Bess. Created by arranger _ _ after Gershwin’s death, this work opens with an impressionist tone-poem drawn from the original material and creating a steamy picture of life on Catfish Row. Augmented by banjo, drum kit and saxophone, the orchestra then tore through the rest of the show, singing out melodies like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Oh Lawd, I’m On My Way”. It was a throlling performance—it’s too bad there wasn’t a larger audience present.

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